Preserving Farms and Ranches

Final Report for FW04-313

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2004: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Robert "Rob" Johnson
Montana State University
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Project Information



Two educational activities were planned to assist the Ravalli County, Montana, Right Farm and Ranch Board and Ravalli County farm families learn about farm and ranch preservation and protection tools. The first was a travel-study tour of three southern Montana counties that involved 12 interested participants learning about land-use programs effective in those counties. The second was to help Ravalli county farm families learn, discuss and consider land-use tools and alternatives employed successfully in other areas to enhance farm family incomes and sustainability for those who continue farming.


1) Develop leadership among members of the Ravalli County Right to Farm and Ranch Board.
2) Provide a view of how other growth-impacted communities in Montana and surrounding states are dealing with farm loss and changing land use.
3) Provide opportunities for the Board to learn from other counties’ methods through discussion with community leadership.
4) Within the Board, foster a nonthreatening structure for farm families to have a forum to analyze and discuss alternative farm preservation concepts.
5) Develop among the Board, leadership that is willing and ready to lead balanced discussions on alternatives and consequences that could shape county and area policy on farm and ranch sustainability.
6) Foster community appreciation beyond the farm or ranch for sustaining farm businesses through community discussion on land-use tools and methods.
7) Explore the benefits of maintaining farms and ranches beyond individual farms including enhanced water quality, maintaining flood plains, protecting wildlife habitat or understanding how undeveloped land heals.


The Board wanted to learn how the local agricultural production sales or farm revenue contributed to the overall economy of the county. First, grant funds of $21,000 were raised in the community from a variety of groups with the majority provided by the Bitterroot National Forest. Second, researchers were contracted to investigate using both statistical analysis and social/cultural analysis on every aspect of farming and ranching in the Bitterroot Valley. A subcommittee of members of the Board in partnership with the Bitterroot Land Trust was formed and became the Steering Committee where extensive conversations were held with the researchers about how to understand their findings with the goal of engaging the farming public, and landowners in general, in discussion about farms and ranches.

The structure of the overall effort developed along three lines:
1) Learn the economic impact of Bitterroot Valley Agriculture and the value placed on maintaining farms and ranches in the community.
2) Learn about various tools for preserving farms and ranches or working agriculture from other states or communities and if or how each might fit locally.
3) Assist community and county leadership and citizens to concentrate on learning about and implementing a farmland preservation program.

Early in the process of citizen education, a survey was conducted for Ravalli County citizens about their views on land preservation and financing it through a locally financed bond. The results supported this method of dealing with growth and community improvement. It appeared citizens thought the program could enhance quality of life and assist struggling farm families.

Voters of Ravalli County passed the bond in November 2006. County Commissioners appointed the Open Lands Board, which has spent significant time and effort to develop a creditable program for the establishment of conservation easements with the first advertisement for willing farmers and ranchers to consider applying in early 2008.


One impact is the discovery that people in the community feel agriculture is important. This program provided the drive for an agenda for farm and ranch operators to initiate significant leadership in the county by working to collaborate with non-farm groups and to become acquainted with county government leadership. The effort provided a growing awareness among the farm community and thus the entire county that there are tools and programs to shape land use and growth patterns that will benefit everyone.

The project also helped to make the leadership of the county aware they are or can be critical to growth planning, community planning and have the ability for independent decision making with long-term stewardship as the over-arching goal.

The project also provided the ability for the Board and the Land Trust to communicate in a nonthreatening environment so ideas could be born and thus develop specific solutions to certain land-use issues. This will be a model for future discussions, community actions and creation of leaders in our rural landscape.


Participation in informative meetings has been exceptional. There is interest among farm and non-farm landowning families. Many of the non-farm interests approach land preservation from more of a conservation of wildlife aspect than agriculture but the two are closely tied. Farmers and ranchers are interested and seeking further information.


Many are concerned about limits on land values, which have been increasing perhaps 10-15% per year for a number of years, and developer interest in their property. Others have a wait-and-see attitude, wondering just how conservation easements will work. Still, others are continuing to farm but are seriously concerned about family income and just paying their bills. Some growers feel it is a little late to save many commercial farms and ranches because so many have gone out of business.


We recommend a statewide educational effort to inform farm families, the public, attorneys and lenders about conservation easements, benefits, limitations and costs (both hidden and direct).

The following questions need to be addressed:
1) Will the public in the western states, with so much public land, be willing to work, finance and provide stewardship to preserve private lands in range areas or smaller mountain valleys that are in the path of development?
2) How do communities deal with growth and what are the tools for doing so?
3) How do communities address leadership qualities in citizens?
4) Is there a mechanism in place to provide training and experience in rural communities or in more urban communities?
5) As communities grow, where will the leadership come from?
6) Many families are strapped trying to make a living; consequently, community work is often extra and at a price to the family. Are there methods for communities to discuss public issues in a structured and nonthreatening or problem solving manner?
7) Will there continue to be people interested in migrating to the mountain valleys of the Rocky Mountain region for the quality of life?
8) Will the privately owned natural resources of the valleys be enhanced, protected or disregarded in the quest for new home sites more convenient to business locations, roads, utilities or public facilities?


Mike Harris, director of the Gallatin County Open Lands program, presented the strengths and challenges of their active preservation program in the Gallatin Valley in Hamilton to a group of about 50 people including the travel-study group.

Another workshop featured Karen Hughes, Ravalli County Planning Director and John Horwich, UOM school of Law and Professor of Land Use Studies and Lab. They each dealt with tolls, techniques and state law affecting counties dealing with land use issues in Montana.

A third workshop had a strong turnout for the Sonoran Institute’s Montana Director, Randy Carpenter, who concentrated on shaping sustainable growth and thus local economies in communities in the west.

A fourth workshop was composed of four member of the Blackfoot challenge, a grass roots organization of ranchers, wildlife biologists, federal agencies and conservationists from the Blackfoot River Valley east of Missoula who have experienced success bringing together many diverse interests to concentrate their time, money and shared vision of land preservation for wildlife habitat and continuation of a ranching heritage.

A fifth effort of the Board working with MSU Extension and the Bitterroot Land Trust was the concept of assisting ranch and farm families to become familiar and comfortable with estate planning and to concentrate on preservation of the farm business as families progress through time where the business is passed to the next generation. This partnership was successful in obtaining a grant from the USDA Risk Management Center, Washington State University, to develop awareness and assist farm families in developing actual estate plans with an attorney or accountant.


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Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.