The Value of Agriculture

By Beacon Staff

Montana – those of us in the real estate industry love to call it “the last best place.” We have the rugged beauty of the majestic mountains, the openness of rangeland, richness of the timberland and a multitude of colors from cropland. The abundant water, with all the numerous lakes and rivers, make it a wonderfully diversified state with incredible use opportunities for many different people. Montana is the fourth-largest state in terms of size. We rank No. 2, behind Texas, in lands dedicated to farms and ranch operations. What may be an interesting and somewhat surprising fact is that agriculture in 2011 brought $3.8 billion into our state, a 14 percemt increase over the previous year, while oil and gas brought in nearly $2.4 billion. Travel and tourism followed with bringing in approximately $2.3 billion. Agriculture continues to outperform all other industry sectors. Just like cash, agriculture is king.

Montana has a total of 93,134,579 acres. Farm and ranch land encompasses 61,338,467 acres, or 66 percent of the total. Cropland parcels make up approximately one-third and rangeland/pastures comprise roughly two-thirds of the land in farms and ranches. This is the rangeland that also offers great feed sources for secondary grazers such as elk and the browsers, deer and antelope. The other component is the cropland that is used as a feed source by big game animals, waterfowl and also upland game birds: pheasants, sharptails and Hungarian partridge to name a few. Also, there are the reservoirs for stockwater and irrigation that provides thousands of acres of surface habitat for waterfowl and also numerous species of fish. These are scattered throughout the state and provide a tremendous change in a positive way to our fish and game numbers. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks reported in 2011 that hunters and fisherman spent over $500 million in Montana.

Private lands in many cases provided the primary source of habitat for the fish or wildlife.

Flathead County contains 3,262,720 acres or a total area of 5,256 square miles of which 5,098 square miles is land and 158 square miles is water. Of this land, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that there are close to 250,000 acres in agricultural production. In 2010, the Montana Ag Statistic Service indicated that the gross farm income in the Flathead County was just under $47 million. Given the fact that the bulk of this is exported, the economic impact of these “fresh dollars” in the economy is immensely significant. The variety of crops include: lentils, peas, spring and winter canola, peppermint, dill, winter and spring wheat, oats, barley, and mixed hay which are all responsible for a diverse landscape. The grains are turning a golden color as they ripen in the fall while the second or third cutting of hay is a bright deep rich green color.

The Flathead Valley has undergone some changes in agriculture. At one time there were more than 100 dairies in the valley. Today there are only two. There used to be a processing plant. Today the processing plant is located in Bozeman. Back when there were numerous dairies in Northwest Montana, the hay was either straight alfalfa with a high protein and nutritional content or individuals were raising a grass alfalfa mix. Today’s hay crops are predominantly a grass alfalfa mix, which is marketed to the horse hay market. The last few years hay has been shipped out of the Flathead Valley as far away as Tennessee, Texas, Idaho and Washington.

The dominant wheat in the valley is Hard Red Spring Wheat, which is a high protein spring wheat and is the preferred wheat for bread. This is shipped west and, if it is not used in the United States, then it is exported to Japan and to the Pacific Rim countries. The other wheat that we see sizeable acreages is the winter wheat. Winter wheat is a soft white wheat used for baking products other than breads. It is typically used for cakes, pastries, crackers, etc.

Lentils and peas, which are a popular rotation, are used as protein sources either for human consumption or for livestock consumption. Peppermint and dill are flavoring agents. Oats and barley are used for livestock feed stuffs. The Flathead Valley is one of the best canola-growing areas in Montana. Canola raised here either goes into Canada, northern Washington or it is shipped by rail to North Dakota. Canola is used for cooking oils, livestock feed stuff and also bio-diesel production.

These varieties of crops grown here provide a great rotation to maintain soil health. These crops go to many different buyers for many different uses. They also provide a tremendous feed and habitat source for all types of wildlife. We Americans need to remember that our agricultural producers are the best in the world. We spend less than 5 percent of our disposable income on food while many places in the world spend almost half of their income on food. Our agricultural producers do this while they are maintaining fish and wildlife habitat and Montana’s natural landscape.

My favorite Super Bowl commercial summed up the United States farmer. It was narrated by Paul Harvey in a powerful, touching and moving illustration of a way of life and an industry that is a major contributor to our country.

Dave Heine is a licensed real estate broker, a certified general appraiser and an accredited rural appraiser.

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