Bozeman farmers work the land amid encroaching development
BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Looking from a bird’s-eye view, Bozeman’s history as a farm town can still be seen in certain pockets of wide, open spaces around the city.
Hay bales dot fields on 19th Avenue and Huffine Lane year after year, despite increased pressure on farmers to sell that land to accommodate the area’s surging growth. And while selling could yield a huge profit, some landowners are determined to hold onto what’s considered some of the richest soil in the area.
Kenny Van Dyke, who farms across the valley with his brother, Mark Van Dyke, said the two have a couple of landlords who should get gold medals for not developing their land.
“Some of the land around MSU is going to be ag land forever,” Kenny said.
Some people hold onto the land because they believe in farming and agriculture, some don’t want their homes to change and some developers have people like the Van Dykes farm their land so they can get an agricultural tax credit while they wait for building plans to move forward.
Others, like organic produce farmer Rachael Hicks, do it because they believe in local, sustainable food and want to see the movement grow in Bozeman.
While only 2.7% of Gallatin County’s employees work in agriculture, according to a 2019 Prospera Business Network report, the industry is still an integral part of Bozeman’s past and present. Farmers hope it will be a part of its future, too.
“If you lose optimism, you’re done,” Mark said.
Van Dyke brothers
Kenny and Mark get flipped off a lot.
Not for bad driving or a fiery disposition. They farm several chunks of land across the Gallatin Valley and are responsible for the big hay bales dotting fields on 19th Avenue, Kagy Boulevard and for farming between Goldenstein Lane and Nash Road.
This often requires them to drive slowly along some of the city’s busiest streets to move their equipment, something that used to be common in Bozeman but is becoming increasingly difficult as the valley grows and traffic gets busier. The two farmers have learned to just wave at angry passersby.
The brothers are fourth-generation farmers and have worked the land in the Bozeman area all their lives. Growing up, the two helped with the family farming and ranching business. They had a deal with their mom where they would work hard so they could get a dirt bike in the spring.
They’ve seen the area change over the years, watching new streets and subdivisions go up in places where they used to drive to get out of town in high school.
It’s hard seeing things change, especially in south Bozeman, where the land is so fertile.
“You’ll see people pulling out foundation, and you’ll see 4 feet of black, not a single rock,” Kenny said.
But at the same time, Mark said they can’t blame people for wanting to live in the place they also love so much. The problem is, when so many houses are built, it fills up the wide open spaces people came here for, Kenny said.
Still, the brothers aren’t going anywhere as long as there’s land to farm.
Despite the ups and downs that come with farming, the brothers love what they do. There’s something special about being your own boss, and dinners in the field are pretty fun — it’s more of a lifestyle than a job, Mark said.
“We’re going to go until the bitter end,” Kenny said.
In some ways, Jeff Todd said he’s “crossed over to the other side.”
“My finances aren’t tied directly to the commodity check like they used to be,” he said.
Todd is the farm foreman with the College of Agriculture & Montana Agricultural Experiment Station at Montana State University, a farm used for research and to develop new types of crops.
He still farms the land his great-grandfather homesteaded in the valley, but it’s a hobby farm now, with goats, chickens and horses. It’ll probably take a conservation easement to keep it farm land, he said.
“I have grandkids in the house my father was raised in,” he said. “And I don’t plan on moving anywhere.”
He said he would still be farming if it was equitable, but it isn’t anymore. He likes working for MSU and having a steady paycheck. Even then, though, farming land around town is getting more difficult.
His program farms 800 to 1,000 acres as far west as Red Bluff, by Norris, to Springhill to Fort Ellis, which encompasses a lot of land in town that includes the field on 19th Avenue and College Street.
Moving equipment across town is starting to impact the way the program operates, though. Todd said it’s not a question of if someone will get hurt in the process, anymore.
“At one point someone will get hurt, will die,” he said.
The program is working on getting everything on a trailer better so they can keep up with the flow of traffic and not slow things down. When roads were quieter and less trafficked, moving equipment wasn’t as much of a problem in Bozeman.
But with all the new activity, Todd said it’s likely that it will get to the point where farmers can no longer actively move equipment on roads. Huffine Lane is already there, he said.
People come to the valley for the open space and the mountains, he said, but they don’t like the smell of manure after farmers spread it out. It’s part of what makes Bozeman what it is, but it’s going away.
“And, unfortunately, we’re at a point to where the chaotic lifestyle they bring is now spoiling that for those that have lived here in the long run,” he said.
The influx of people in Bozeman has changed the valley, he said. He feels like everyone is always in a rush to get around.
“If I need to move a combine from Four Corners to Fort Ellis, there are just some people that are going to need to be a little patient,” he said.
Not every seed grows perfectly.
“But when they do, it seems like a miracle to me every time,” Hicks said.
An advocate for small-scale, organic, local farming, Hicks and her family have owned Three Hearts Farm on Love Lane for the past four summers. Farming more than 100 types of plants on about an acre, she said staying small has always been important to her.
Much of her farming philosophy was inspired by writer and farmer Wendell Berry, who she said talks about knowing the land well.
“I like his approach. He said if you do the little thing that you know are good for the land and good for your community, then all those little things add up,” she said. “It’s not that you have to fix the problem, but if you do your small part, that’s good.”
Hicks said she doesn’t plan on feeding all of Bozeman, but as the town grows, she hopes it can inspire more people to start their own community gardens and small farms. She hopes more people start to care where their food comes from.
“And it’s not to say that everyone should be a small farmer,” she said. “I think it’s to continue to have a connection to the land and to truly support the things that are local around them.”