Ismay, Montana, ranchers span the rural-urban divide with millennial relationships
July 13, 2017
A popular meme shared among ag people on social media reads: "Farming: The art of losing money while working 400 hours a month to feed people who think you are trying to kill them."
While slightly pessimistic – and hopefully inaccurate in at least some ways – this sentiment is relatable to many. As we mumble in frustration: "Don't they know we're growing their food? If we were ruining the land, would we still be here?" movements like "Meatless Mondays" gain acceptance, environmental extremists populate propaganda, and the concept that public lands should become strictly playgrounds gains traction.
Despite today's overwhelming options for communication and information sharing, the urban-rural divide has become more pronounced than ever. The 98 percent-plus of the population who do not work in agriculture powerfully overwhelms the fractional minority raising food from the land. So we quietly put our boots on and go back to work.
Jeanne Drange, a rancher from Ismay, Mont., was weary of the disconnect. "I got so tired of seeing this information on Facebook that just wasn't true," she said. "I knew that instead of just having meetings among [other ranchers and cattlewomen] to discuss the misperceptions, we needed to do something about it." Drange recalled decades ago when their popular, regional Farmer-Rancher Banquet was a two-way street. "The ranchers would invite the 'city people' out to their ranches, and then the town businesses would host a big banquet for them in exchange."
Over the years the ranch visits were lost. So Drange decided to bring that back. With her fellow Fallon Creek CattleWomen based in southeastern Montana, Drange organized "Urban Meets Rural Day." They invited any and all to a day in the country to tour their operation, enjoy activities like pasture golf and dummy roping, and eat some tasty beef, all at no charge. "We had two primary goals," Drange said. "One, to share information about ranching, and two, to have fun."
Approximately 60 people including Miles City residents and volunteers from the ag community made the 120-mile round trip, partly red-dirt-road trek to the Drange Ranch to share knowledge and learn from each other. Interestingly – but probably not surprising – the majority of the city visitors were young mothers with their families. While a group of kids resembling a hill of ants with piggin' strings pursued the roping dummies in attempts to be cowboys and cowgirls, their mothers were taking in information on the nutrition of beef and how food is produced.
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Sarah Bartholomew was drawn to the event to learn – and explore a dream.
"The idea of cowboys and ranching is terribly romantic; that's what originally drew me to Montana after being raised in Seattle," she said. "Having married a local man and lived here for about eight years now, the appeal has not disappeared."
Like many urban dwellers, Bartholomew may not have experience in the field, but represents many of the traits shared by the millennial population. Socio-economic researchers even have a term for her likes: "YEMMie," or Young, Educated, Millennial Mother. This demographic group is currently leading the charge for local food, disrupting the business model of traditional grocery shopping, and influencing the demand for information. Far from being a critic, Bartholomew and her cohorts represent a target audience that is open to relationships and emulating the work ranchers do.
"We are interested in the idea of modern homesteading, with at least enough land and animals to sustain our own family. I was interested in this event to learn more of the everyday lifestyle from the ranchers themselves."
She and the others in the tour wagons that visited pastures and watering sources and viewed cattle and wildlife grazing together were fertile ground for the information the Dranges and the CattleWomen sought to share.
"I learned so much!" said Bartholomew. "What stood out to me the most is that ranchers really are stewards of the land. I was impressed to hear how much the Drange family relies on cool and warm weather grasses to dictate where they pasture the cows, not only so they gain the most weight but also to preserve and protect the forage and land. Secondly, and frankly a bit disappointingly, is how terribly hard it is for young people, without land being handed down from previous generations to them, to begin ranching. I never heard a 'not possible' when I asked how it could be done, but I did hear a long, expensive road ahead of anyone that wants to try."
Although not everyone will have an opportunity to own a ranch, reaching out and building relationships is key to gaining respect for those who are charged with stewardship of the land.
Whitney Klasna of Lambert, Mont., and her husband, Dylan, are both fourth-generation Montana farmers and ranchers. Klasna has gained a wide following of her Facebook posts, where she snaps entertaining, photojournalism-style shots of everyday ranch and farm life – including wheat fields, Hereford cattle, and three Corgi dogs – on her iPhone and posts them with summaries of information on the what, where and why of production ag.
"I post photos and stories on social media to not only share with my friends and family, but also in hopes they will share it with their friends and connections too. I tend to explain 'why' we do the things we do to help bring context to the story for non-ag friends and also friends in ag that may do things a different way," Klasna said.
Klasna recognizes the strength of the food movement because she too, is a millennial.
"We like to share these types of things because people care about the food they are purchasing in the grocery store and want to know that it was brought to them in safest way possible. And I'm the same way when I'm shopping at the grocery store to feed our family – I want to know the food I'm buying is safe to feed myself and family."
Although the YEMMies and their age group may lead the foodie movement, the rest of the population has an interest in connecting with a lifestyle they view as reminiscent and idyllic.
"What we enjoyed most was being able to offer an opportunity to share our story with our guests," said Drange. "Many people still remember going out to the country to visit grandparents or family when they were little, so they're not that far removed from the farm and ranch – they just don't have an opportunity to make that connection again for their kids."
The dusty, 100 degree-day in the middle of one of Eastern Montana's biggest droughts may have showcased the hard work ranchers face every day. But the camaraderie and opening of doors from the Drange family surely influenced a future generation who care about the environment and the items they put on their family's tables.
"I didn't see a single kid that didn't have a rope in their hand, and if they can remember this experience through the fun they had, hopefully it will help influence their future decision making," Drange said.