Just past dawn, Chris Fritz slowly slipped out of bed as quietly as he could, trying to negotiate the creaks of the small house that homesteaders built more than 100 years ago. His newborn baby boy slept soundly nearby along with his wife, Heidi. His other young son, 5-year-old Lance, was also still deep asleep. The early-morning scene was a familiar one in the Fritz household.
“I remember my dad waking up early every day, too,” Fritz later says. “He was always quiet as a mouse going through the house to make sure he didn’t wake anybody up.”
By 7:30 a.m., as the sun crawled over the backdrop of mountains along the eastern edge of the Flathead Valley, Fritz was trudging through deep, frosty mud, wearing tattered work gloves and tackling the day’s tasks. This solitary process included checking on three newborn calves and feeding the hungry herd of 42 cattle, many of which will go to auction a few months from now. During calving season, which spans the brutal heart of winter in January and February, Fritz woke up every three or four hours to check on the young newborns to ensure they didn’t freeze. It can be a grueling but necessary duty.
“This is our income. This is what we have to live on,” he says. “You don’t hope for the best. You do the best.”
Throughout last week, as the ground continued to thaw, Fritz transitioned to a new season of labor, the annual spring tradition of planting seeds – wheat, canola, peas, hay and eventually corn – throughout the family’s 350-acre farmland on the eastern outskirts of Kalispell and Evergreen.
Seeding is a long, meticulous process. Like all aspects of farming, it’s done amid constant uncertainty and in the face of never-ending challenges. But nevertheless, reaping a good harvest in late summer is vital to Fritz and his family, as it is for many other farm families across the valley and state.
Chris Fritz was born to farming, like his father before him, and his father before him. His wife, Heidi, similarly grew up on a family farm in central Montana. Fritz is a fourth-generation farmer in the Flathead, living off the land his great-grandfather settled in the 1930s.
The youngest of four siblings got his start early, earning his chops at the age of 8, when he began running the tractor.
“Us kids, we started as soon as we were strong enough to push the clutch in,” Fritz recalls.
After graduating from Flathead High School in 2002 and going away to study agriculture at Montana State University, Fritz quickly returned home eight years ago with a new wife and budding family. Today, at 30 years old, Fritz is carrying on the family legacy. Working a diversified range of agriculture operations like other farmers in the valley, the Fritzes also represent an ongoing legacy of resilience, tenacity and innovation that has come to define many farmers.
Agriculture is an age-old facet of Montana’s economy and identity. More than a century after a flood of settlers filed over 114,000 homestead claims across the state — many in areas like the Flathead that were located near the tracks of the Great Northern Railway — the pursuit of farming and ranching remains the state’s largest overall industry.
Yet challenges persist, and farmers like Fritz must weather a constant storm of harsh weather, drought, disease and bug infestation, price drops and market volatility — the list of potential problems never seems to end.
Just last year, Montana farmers reported record hail damage, more than $14 million, the most expensive year in the 98-year history of the state’s crop-hail insurance program.
There’s also the constant balancing supply and demand that nationwide ag producers face, while responding to higher needs with fewer resources.
“Every year is different and there’s new challenges all the time,” Fritz says. “You just try to stay on top it all. But each year it’s getting a little more difficult rolling with the punches.”
Here in the Flathead, oil trains are clogging the railways and taking precedence over farmers trying to ship their products. This can lead farmers to scramble to find storage or risk losing valuable produce.
And land prices continue to rise and many farm families have either cashed out or subdivided their property.
“I’ve seen so much (farmland) disappear,” Fritz says. “Every year there’s another field gone here and another field gone there. It’s disconcerting I guess.”
Every few months, another vehicle drives down the dirt road near U.S. Highway 2 that leads to the Fritz farm and someone offers to buy parcels of their valuable land, which is positioned in the bustling corridor between Evergreen and Columbia Falls.
But the answer from Fritz always remains the same.
“No, no matter what. I’m in this to farm,” he says. “That’s my true aspiration in life. I don’t want to do anything else. For as long as I’m around I’m going to work to preserve what I’ve got and help others do that too.”
“I love the lifestyle,” his wife Heidi adds. “It’s a great lifestyle and a great way to raise a family.”
During autumn, the Fritzes also open their land as a popular public corn maze as a way to encourage folks to experience the outdoors, and perhaps for a moment imagine life as a farmer.
“We’re solitary people. We like our peace and quiet. But it’s good to give people that opportunity to come out and just go for a walk out in the field,” he says. “There’s lots to see, there’s bugs and plants and rocks and sky. If it rains and hails, it’s fun, too. You’ll have a story that ‘we survived.’”
On their property, Fritz’s late father, Carter, ran a dairy farm with Fritz’s mother, Cheryl, who also grew up in a family of lifelong farmers, the de Yongs.
Cheryl grew up on her family’s multi-generational farm near Fair-Mont-Egan, with five siblings including her brother Ron, who remains a lifelong farmer while serving as the state’s agriculture director. Cheryl’s family, like her son, lived a modest, hard-working life that she cherished.
“We were never poor, even though many times we didn’t have money,” she says. “We had warm loving friends and family. We had good soil, good cows. We had meadowlarks, woodpeckers, critters and lots of deer. So we were never poor. I think there are wealthy people out there who are poor, but we were not.”
Cheryl lives just down the road from her son’s family in the same house she and Carter raised their five kids. Carter passed away a few years ago at the age of 68. If he were still alive today, no doubt he would still be out helping Chris with the year-round tasks that make up a farm life.
“It’s not just a job to most (farmers),” Cheryl said. “It’s something they take pride in and enjoy doing. They don’t want to give it up very easily. It’s hard to describe. It’s just something you innately feel.”
Despite the constant challenges, farmers reign strong across America. A new government census released in February showed that the market values of crops, livestock and total agricultural products hit record highs in 2012. Montana agricultural products earned $4.2 billion, a 51 percent increase over 2007. All that despite the total number of farms dropping and the average age of farmers increasing, to 58.9 years old.
The question of who will succeed this generation of farmers looms large, along with whether the challenges will ever prevail. Although recent years have been kind, Chris and Heidi Fritz know that troubles would likely befall them sooner or later, like a bad harvest or a troublesome summer.
All farm families must experience this daunting fate, but it’s not dampening the Fritzes’ spirits.
“We know how tough our parents had it and we know they could make it and we can make it, too,” Chris Fritz says. “We’re not dreading the years to come. We’re looking at them as a challenge that we’re up for.”
Linderman Students Honor Cheryl Fritz
High school students at the Linderman Education Center in Kalispell celebrated Women’s History Month recently by honoring Cheryl Fritz, a lifelong farmer who continued her family’s legacy of living and working off the land, passing that heritage on to her son Chris and his young family. Students in Trisha Carlson’s class collected an oral history of Cheryl Fritz’s life on the farm, spending nearly three hours asking questions and listening to stories about what it was like growing up on a family farm and living off the land. The class created a final presentation of photos, recordings and writings about Cheryl, who was honored two weeks ago.
The project was part of a new program developed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with support from Montana Conservation Districts, the Montana Historical Society, Montana History Foundation, and Montana Stock Grower’s Association. The project, titled “From the Ground Up: Montana Women and Agriculture,” seeks to document the lives of Montana women who have lived and worked on the land – their roles as ranchers, farmers, mothers, and stewards of the state’s irreplaceable natural resources.
“I was struck by the vital roles women play in agriculture – the young, the old, the daughters and spouses. They’re descendants of homesteaders. They’re passionate about the land and taking care of it. Their life stories embody the values of Montana,” said Linda Brander, a resource specialist with the state, who came up with the project idea. “I also realized we’re losing older generations of women who’ve lived on the land and have so much to tell us.”
To date, a total of 16 oral histories have been completed, with more in the works. The local project received funding from the Kalispell Education Foundation as part of their 2013-14 Great Opportunities Grants program.
Two students in Carlson’s class also wrote about Cheryl Fritz, and their writing is published below:
A Perspective Poem
by Riley Delaney
Inspired by the life of Cheryl Fritz
life on our farm
can be hard, calf birthing to egg crating
from sun up to sundown
never an easy life
making it milk check to milk check
ensuring everyone is fed
but to be out in the open fields
is the fruit of my toil
and all the joy it brings
bonds strengthened through labor and love
work is hard and sometimes daunting
but with laughter and pain in proportion we thrive til the end of the day
to my husband’s father, the land was sold
the roots run deep from the crops we sowed
balanced and maintained for our kids to hold
Listen to a Life
Essay by Skylin Strong-Kurns
Cheryl’s life is committed to the idea that “family comes first.”
When Cheryl Fritz was young, her family was always there for one another. Since her parents had their own farm land with cows, chickens, pigs and hogs, there was always work for her and her four siblings to do. They sold hogs and produced their own milk and eggs. Her life was “poor and tough,” but always enjoyable.
In her adult life, Cheryl was married and had five children. Cheryl and her husband, Carter, both grew up in the agriculture life, so they continued it together. They had their own land near Kalispell, Montana and had all their own produce. Life was rough for awhile; Cheryl was living “milk check to milk check,” but she remained content and happy. Cheryl and her husband had a corn field too, that eventually became the Fritz Corn Maze. The corn maze started out as Cheryl wanting to do something for her kids, so they started mowing mazes into the corn. Then her husband wanted to do more with the maze, so he made it a community event to allow others to experience the joys of being in the country with family.
Cheryl didn’t want an average Montana home for her family; she wanted to embrace her creativity and brighten her home with unique colors and beautiful smells. Her bright green shag carpet, the pictures of bright poppies, and all of her chiming cuckoo clocks gave her home a different, but relaxing aura. The home Cheryl’s husband built for her was a simple two bedroom home, but I could feel the meaning behind each memory it held of a family that worked hard and enjoyed life together.
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