Back during the last growth spurt in the Bitterroot Valley, some traditional farmers and ranchers felt as if they were getting squeezed out.
Not only were they alarmed that some of the finest agricultural lands were now growing houses, but they also soon learned that some of their new neighbors didn’t understand what it meant to share a fence or that farmers and ranchers sometimes work late into the night.
“They couldn’t quite comprehend why someone might be out in the middle of the night shining a spotlight during calving season,” said Jay Meyer of Stevensville. “They didn’t like the dust and noise that can come during haying.”
And some of those new folks were quick to find a lawyer if they didn’t like what was happening on the neighbor’s land.
In the late 1990s, a core group of farmers and ranchers met at the Rocky Mountain Grange Hall. That was the beginning of the Ravalli County Right to Farm and Ranch organization.
Recently some of the founders of that group gathered with its youngest member to honor Dan Huls for his efforts to get that organization off the ground and all the work that it’s accomplished since 1999. That work includes being the main push behind the county’s Open Land Bond program that has helped keep agriculture alive in the Bitterroot Valley while preserving 7,630 acres of prime agricultural lands for future generations.
Huls, a retired dairyman, relinquished his position on the Right to Farm and Ranch Board after recently being elected to the Ravalli County Commission. He now serves as the county’s liaison to the group.
Before helping to start the agricultural organization, Huls chaired the planning board during a time when the Bitterroot Valley was the fastest-growing area in the state.
With land prices soaring, traditional ranchers and farmers whose wealth was wrapped up in their land felt the squeeze.
“Dan and others were instrumental in finding a way for farmers and ranchers to keep their land together,” Meyer said. “The challenge was finding a way to extract some of that value from their land so they could stay in business or pass it along to someone else who was interested in keeping it in agriculture.”
The result was the $10 million Open Lands Bond, passed in 2006 by 60% of the voters who went to the polls that year. Its purpose was to protect prime agricultural lands, preserve important waterways and keep vital wildlife habitat intact.
While funds from the Open Lands Bond have helped pay for a few popular recreation sites, like Skalkaho Bend Park, most of the money has been spent on putting conservation easements on working farms and ranches. To date, there are 7,827 acres of completed projects that have tapped into Open Lands Bond funding. All but 197 acres are working farms and ranches.
Owners of working farms and ranches are going to feel pressure again as a new land rush into the Bitterroot Valley is underway.
“Not too long ago, there were lots of empty lots created during that last growth spurt," Huls said. "They’re sold now. We’re filling up all the subdivisions that were created the last time around. We’re hearing rumors again of some large developments being proposed.”
Beyond that, the Right to Farm and Ranch Committee continues to develop projects that help people in agriculture and educate those who live on the other side of the fence.
They worked with former state legislator Nancy Ballance to get a farmland hunting district and add shoulder seasons to help manage wildlife that damage crops and haystacks. Currently, they are developing an animal emergency plan that would help people deal with their livestock during natural disasters. And they are looking to resurrect the Code of the West publication that offered important information to newcomers on how to be a good neighbor in a place where agriculture is still important.
“It’s common sense thing to us, but they didn’t have those issues from the places where they moved from,” Meyer said. “It’s not fun being in a confrontation with a neighbor. That’s something we all want to avoid.”
Huls said his years on the board were both satisfying and educational.
“All of us in agriculture tend to think of our operation as the center of the universe,” Huls said. “I’ve learned a great deal from my fellow board members about the variety of issues that they face on their operations.”
The pandemic brought home to a lot of people the importance of local agriculture.
“Right now, we’re operating with a flawed model where we depend on places far away for our food,” Huls said. “Every community used to be a lot more self-sufficient. We’ve now seen the importance of being able to raise food locally.”
Corvallis’ Frost Top Orchard owner, Al Pernichele, said the agricultural model in the Bitterroot Valley is changing to meet that demand with smaller farms raising specialty crops.
“Most people can’t go buy enough land in the Bitterroot and pay for it raising hay and cows,” he said. “We’re seeing smaller places raising more high-value crops.”
Western Agricultural Research Center’s farm manager, Haydon Davis, is the newest member of the Right to Farm and Ranch Committee. He said the center is focusing more on those specialty crops that can be raised on five or 10-acre parcels.
There was a time when the research center was threatened with possible closure. Board members and the Right to Farm organization wrote letters of support.