Hurdles for the Flathead’s Youngest Farmer

At 19, Miles Passmore aims to reinvigorate an aging industry

By Dan Testa
Nineteen-year-old Miles Passmore pilots a tractor in 2007 through a field in Somers while preparing an area of the property he leases for the next winter wheat crop. Beacon File Photo

CRESTON – Miles Passmore, the youngest full-time farmer in the Flathead, is enjoying the brief respite between the long working hours of August harvest and the winter planting. On a warm, early fall morning, the 19-year-old Creston native climbed into his red Ford F-150 and headed south on Riverside Road, kicking up dust. He planned to “disc up” a fallow field to prepare it for planting winter wheat.

His dog Pepper stood behind the truck’s cab on the toolbox, leaning from side-to-side into the curves for balance. Passmore held up a finger to the neighbors he saw, other farmers living few and far between. Along the drive south toward Somers he passed modest homes, open fields, the untrammeled banks of the Flathead River and the Swan Range looming above. Any evidence of a valley undergoing significant change was – for a few moments – hidden, except the signs in front of the riverfront property: For Sale by Sotheby’s International Realty.

A 2006 graduate of Flathead High, Passmore looks like the teenager he is, with a man’s quiet demeanor. A third generation resident of the valley, he has decided on a life in farming, an increasingly difficult endeavor in the Flathead, where land prices are skyrocketing and often transplants from more crowded places are unaccustomed to living alongside agriculture. But Passmore acknowledges these challenges and cares little. He does what he loves, in the place where his family surrounds him.

“I started running Bobcats when I was 8 or 9 years old and you pretty much couldn’t keep me off of them,” Passmore said. “I just have always enjoyed going out and running the tractors and planting something and watching it grow.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2002 farm census, Flathead County has 1,075 farms, down slightly from the previous census in 1997. But while statistics can be hard to come by, the number of farmers who do it full-time with no supplementary income is much smaller. Judging by who shows up at community meetings, or who you pass in the truck hauling grain into town, the number hovers somewhere around 35, according to farmers interviewed.

“There are over 1,000 Realtors and less than 40 farmers” in the Flathead, according to Bruce Tutvedt, a family farmer in the West Valley and chairman of the state farm service agency committee, which is responsible for the administration of U.S.D.A. farm programs in Montana. Tutvedt has known Passmore for years and thinks he is the youngest farmer in the Flathead by at least a decade. Because their numbers are dwindling, Tutvedt believes larger opportunities exist for young farmers like Passmore who persist – particularly in the burgeoning market for crops like Canola seed that can be refined into alternative fuels.

Tutvedt is rooting for Passmore, but wonders if the young farmer should have pursued further education about the business side of agriculture before getting his hands dirty in the profession. Running a modern farm requires someone equally adept at playing the markets to get the maximum price for products, and fixing a tractor, Tutvedt said. “To find someone who can do all these things and then put those separate things together and make that work is becoming a unique individual.”

But no one can say Passmore isn’t getting an education. Last year – his first year of full-time farming on the 1,250 acres his family owns and the land he leases – Passmore planted many of his seeds too deep and lost hundreds of acres. Then an insect known as the Orange Wheat Blossom Midge swept through the valley, destroying 700 acres of his spring wheat.

“It was really kind of a disaster,” Passmore said, “then this bug came along and clean wiped everything out that did come up.”

Passmore had his doubts. The previous year he had considered attending diesel mechanic school in Havre, when the farmer he worked for decided to leave after being hit three times in one year while moving farm equipment along the valley’s increasingly trafficked roads. The farmer offered Passmore most of his equipment at a discounted rate. After a few days of turning it over in his mind, Passmore committed – with the financial support of his parents – and purchased $60,000 in equipment and started farming wheat, barley, canola, hay and managing 250 cows, calving them out in the spring. He estimates that it costs $200,000 a year just to put the crops in the ground.

Things are looking up this year, though. Planting and harvest went smoothly, and so many farmers planted corn to get in on the ethanol boom that wheat prices are at an all time high.

Passmore lives with his parents on the 190-acre farm they own in Creston. Without their help he would not have been able to get started, and some of his friends who would love to farm don’t have the money or support. Standing beside the house in which he grew up, surrounded by bursting flower gardens planted by his mother, he can point south, to the neighboring farms owned by his aunt and uncle – and to the east where old farmers have sold off their land and new homes have gone up in the last five years.

“My uncle used to farm that whole area down there,” he said. “Now it’s broken up into 20-acre pieces.” In many ways, the intense growth and development in the Flathead has made life more difficult for farmers here. Land is simply too expensive to purchase for agriculture, and much of what Passmore farms is leased. “I don’t really like to see all the development but there isn’t much you can do,” he said. “It’s their land to do what they want with it.”

His grandparents, Larry and Ruth Passmore, live nearby on about 660 acres; Larry still farms at 78. Ruth sees in her grandson the work ethic of her husband when he was a young man: “The drive to get at it, the long hours, the commitment to do it right.” Miles’s grandparents want to keep their land in the family, but they’re not sure how. A conservation easement would lock future Passmores into farming when it may no longer be tenable. They’ve gifted some of the land, but with land prices continuing to rise, it’s unclear what the next step should be.

Ruth worries for her grandson’s safety, particularly when moving equipment on busier public roads, where drivers often lack the patience to wait or give a wide berth to farmers on a tractor. When crossing the long, narrow bridge across the Flathead River on U.S. Highway 83, just west of the intersection of U.S. Highway 35, Passmore has to ask the Sheriff’s Department to stop traffic. “It just really makes me nervous to move any machinery at all down the road,” he said. “There isn’t any respect for the farmer anymore it doesn’t seem like.”

Despite some of these hazards, Passmore isn’t yet sold on picking up, leaving, and relocating his farm “east of the mountains” as some have done. The roads may see less traffic, but Flathead soil remains some of the wettest and most fertile in the state. An acre in eastern Montana typically yields 45 to 55 bushels of winter wheat, Passmore said, while the Flathead yields 120 bushels on the same amount of land. Ironically, much of the best farming soil lies north of Kalispell, beneath the ever-expanding commercial district.

With the sun reaching higher into the sky, Passmore climbs into the cab of his John Deere 8630 tractor, his dog at his feet – “She gets mad if I don’t take her with me” – and heads toward the field he intends to disc, where the soil is dry and fragrant.

“There’s a lot of time to do thinking in there,” he said of the hours he spends in the tractor. “I do a lot of thinking about what I can do better.” He thinks about the winter planting, and about whether the rain will come, making it wet enough for the investment in seed and fertilizer to be worthwhile on this field. These are the things he prefers to think about, instead of questions about why he has chosen to become a farmer in the Flathead. There’s not much to consider there. It is who he is.

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