Buddy seats and urban sprawl: Smieja family works together for the future

• The Smiejas’ hay and farming operation is unique in that they operate on strictly leased land in one of the fastest growing suburb areas of the nation.

Like most other farm families, Trevor and Cassie Smieja and their kids combine seeds, dirt, sunshine, water, and a lot of hard work to grow hay bales and other commodities. 

Smieja Hay and Grain, based outside of Belgrade, Mont., includes 1,500 acres of hay, a few thousand acres of grain, and pasture for around 50 pairs of Red Angus cows. Their main crops are hay, wheat and barley, but they also raise silage corn and gluten-free oats as a cash crop.

What makes their business unique is that Trevor and Cassie Smieja don’t own a single acre of land and they have successfully built up a farming enterprise strictly on leased land around Bozeman, Montana – the fastest growing city of its size in the U.S. In 2019 Gallatin County – which includes Bozeman and nearby Belgrade – was named the fastest growing county in the state of Montana. It is estimated that 10 new people move to the area every day.

This rapid influx of people has made the option of turning the rich, fertile mountain valley soil into a housing development much more attractive than turning the soil with a plow. Competition is steep, and the Smeijas say there are times when they have laid inputs in the ground in the spring, only to see construction equipment move in before they can harvest.

“I can’t say it wouldn’t be easier to do this in a different location,” says Trevor with a laugh. Most of their leases are year to year and they lose 50-100 acres a year to subdivisions. “No one’s willing to do long term; they’re hoping the next big boom comes up.” Beyond lease uncertainty, the reality of non-agricultural community growth means little patience for their way of life. “There have been times when the kids have been with us in equipment and we’ve missed having near collisions. People are flying around us, flashing lights, honking horns. If we had it to do all over, we would have built this in a more ag-friendly location.”

Even without the hurdle of urban sprawl they continue to overcome year after year, Trevor and Cassie’s story is special. Trevor grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota.

“I’ve always liked making hay,” he says. “I’d do anything to get out of the barn and not have to milk cows – so I’d sit on the tractor and bale hay all afternoon.” After his dad passed away when he was in his early teens, Trevor’s new hobby became skipping school. His mother informed him they were moving. She got remarried, and they ended up in Belgrade in 1996 as Trevor was starting high school. They sold the farm in Minnesota, but Trevor was able to keep a few of his dad’s John Deere tractors. In Belgrade he joined FFA and as his first project he started his own hay operation – on 7.5 acres.

In FFA Trevor also met a girl who would come to be a key player in expanding from that 7.5 acres. Cassie was two years younger and, in 2002 after they both had graduated, they got married and “have continued growing together ever since,” Trevor says, adding four more Smiejas to their farm crew. “Crops and kids, that’s what we raise,” says Cassie. And the two are not mutually exclusive – the kids literally grew up on the tractors and today, each have their own area of the farm they especially enjoy.

Daughter Kiley, 16, is a junior in high school and has operated every piece of equipment they have. She recently placed sixth in the nation in the National FFA Agronomy contest. Alexa, 13, loves animals and livestock shows and recently started raising show pigs. Both girls have served as the Montana Red Angus Ambassador.

Bob, 9, likes to rake and run the Bobcat as well as the combine. Baby Haylee, just shy of 1, is once again filling the buddy seat near mom as the older ones have moved on to driving their own.

The Smiejas have worked hard to build up a solid reputation both as renters and growers. “We spend a lot of time pounding the pavement, trying to do a really good job, relying on word-of-mouth,” Trevor says. Rent varies wildly from $15/acre on a poor piece of land no one wants to $111/acre for pivot-irrigated.

His passion is growing high quality forage, mostly large square bales that are more easily exported out of state. They focus on producing feeder-quality hay – mostly alfalfa and some alfalfa/grass mix, and have transitioned to making mostly large squares due to their ability to export out of state. Their strong customer base and solid marketing relationships have grown over time – most on a verbal agreement or a handshake. Although they’ve sold hay as far as Kentucky, lately most of it is going to Idaho.

A typical year in the life of the Smiejas starts with calving in January; two-thirds of their herd is registered Red Angus. The rest of the winter includes working on equipment, trucking and grain delivery. March is time to brand and Cassie starts planning her work as a certified A.I. tech. Trevor says by April he is “chomping at the bit to start churning dirt and putting seeds in the ground.” When planting wraps up it’s full on all summer – spraying, getting hay equipment ready, and baling by the end of June. They put up hay all of July, compete at the county fair, and then get the combines ready. August it’s time for the second cutting of hay. In September they start chopping corn for silage, and in October seed winter wheat if the mountain storms haven’t set in. When the ground freezes in November they take an annual break for a week and go visit family in Minnesota for Thanksgiving. In December it’s time to get ready for calving and continue equipment maintenance. In addition, Cassie laughs, winter is the time when the kids are supposed to be working on their 4-H record books.

It’s not all work and no play for the Smiejas though. The kids still find time to compete, play and show. Trevor and Cassie serve as 4-H leaders and softball and baseball coaches and chauffeurs to jackpot livestock shows. “We’re gone every week from the middle of May through the Fourth of July, usually with softball or jackpot shows,” says Cassie. “We have to have 4-H done ahead of time.”

Both Trevor and Cassie say their lifestyle isn’t always easy, especially with the challenges they face, but the fact that they work together as a family every single day make it worthwhile. “The kids have grown up beside us, literally, farming,” she says.

Trevor adds, “It’s a lot of hard work and there is a lot of sacrifice – there are days when we’re trying to fix two or three broken balers and the bad weather is coming and tempers can get really bad, really fast – but the kids are out there learning with us. We’re all in it together.”

Up until this past year the kids went to public school but this year are in a hybrid homeschool program. They attend public school Wednesdays and Fridays then do the rest of their work at home. It’s been a good mix for their lifestyle, the parents say.

Last fall Kiley ran the corn chopper and in between truckloads would do her homework in the cab. “A truck would pull up, she’d put her book down and fill it, and then go right back to studying,” says Trevor.

Bill Tatarka, with his family, owns Mow-Ten-Vue Dairy between Bozeman and Belgrade. He has known and worked with the Smiejas for over ten years – sharing equipment and helping each other at harvest. “Everything they’ve done, they’ve earned by their dedication and hard work,” says Tatarka. “They will do anything they can to help out a neighbor. If a neighbor is in trouble they’ll leave their own stuff and come help. I respect them for what they do and how hard they work at it.”

Trevor said a pinnacle moment in his life occurred a few years ago when the whole family was in the hay field. Alexa and Bob were running twin rakes, Cassie and Kiley were each on a big baler, and he was stacking bales behind them.

“I realized any decision we make involving the future is not just about Cassie and I. When we envision our future it always involves the kids,” he says. “They are all passionate about agriculture and we would love to see them get to carry this on – whether it be the lease farming here or somewhere else where they can put roots down in their own dirt.”