The west was won by homesteaders – pioneers bold enough to stake their hopes and dreams on a cash crop and a sod shack. Some places proved unsuitable for farming and all that remains is a rusty windmill. But in other areas, like the Gallatin Valley, barley boomed and neighbors sprouted up on all sides. Now, over a century later, wheat fields brush up against the side of a Starbucks and swathed fields are swapped for subdivisions as fast as the bricks can be laid. Welcome to the world that Greg and Sherwin Leep, third generation Montana farmers, wake up to every day. Their grandpa ran dairy cattle, and then their father started farming some ground near Four Corners to help support the family of 12.
The world has changed a lot since then, but the Gallatin Valley seems to be on a faster track. Even in the Leep brothers’ lifetimes, the transformation has been staggering.
“It’s changed – changed incredibly,” says Greg. “One of the properties that we own north of Belgrade, that was open all around it when we bought it seven or eight years ago, and now they’ve got a school built adjacent to it and there’s houses right up to the property line. We’re just in the middle of a lot of growth, and it’s happening everywhere in the valley.”
Farming and ranching have always been tough work, but an increasing population brings new challenges, says Greg – one of these being more congested roadways.
“The traffic is quite a big thing we have to deal with on a daily basis in the summer, just getting moved around. Highway 191 goes up to Big Sky and Yellowstone Park, and that’s the highway we’ve got to get off the yard onto, so that’s always kind of a challenge.”
Today, Leep Hay and Grain, Co. farms about 10 miles in all directions from the original Four Corners farm, so roading a combine and 50-foot header from one field to the next can turn into an exasperating all-day project near the city that’s come to be known as “Boz-Angeles.”
With more people grabbing for limited land, Greg says: “The property values have escalated exponentially over the last few years.”
That’s not inherently bad, though, especially if you are looking to sell your land; and for corporate investors, expensive land is just another day in the life. It’s not hard for developers to scare up enough cash to buy up acres and pour foundations. But what about the farmers?
Sherwin says, “We’re trying to survive. It’s a good agricultural area in a lot of ways, because soil is good and water is good, but the price of the land is getting to be probably the biggest challenge. It’s getting as high as $14,000-$15,000 per acre for good land that’s located reasonably well. There’s just no way you can afford that and make it pay. So that’s probably the biggest challenge, but as far as the productivity of the land, the Gallatin Valley is a good place to be, it’s pretty reliable, year in year out. We’ve got good water most of the time – sometimes it gets a little tight, but from the point of being a farmer, yeah, it’s a good place to be.”
Fortunately, the Leeps are out-of-the-box thinkers. “You have to create advantages wherever you can. You have to utilize the land where you can find it.” Thanks to some creative use of land programs and a handful of efficiency hacks, the Leeps have been able to do just that.
According to Sherwin, the number one reason they’ve been able to expand their operation is their use of conservation easements. It’s an increasing trend: the Montana Association of Land Trusts reports that over 2.6 million Montana acres are protected from future development through these programs.
“The land trust has been active here in promoting conservation easements,” says Sherwin. “We’ve participated in that program, and because we’re working on our fourth property into conservation easement, we feel that we’ve got a base of operation preserved for the next generation. We’re keeping some of those lands viable for agriculture that way, so it’s been kind of a good deal. Of course, they give you a pretty significant tax break by entering into easement, so we’ve been able to use some of the proceeds they pay to expand and buy additional acres, so it’s broadened our base a bit and it’s been helpful to keep our operation viable in kind of a busy, developing environment here in the Gallatin Valley.”
Greg agrees, “It’s been very helpful for us, just as far as being able to expand our operation, because the price per acre here is just unaffordable for agriculture. To buy it and then try to pay for it farming is just not able to be done. So, by using that tool, we’ve been able to grow our land base quite a bit over the last 20 years. It would have been impossible without it.”
With 5,500 irrigated acres to farm, and half of that in hay, land isn’t the only resource the Leeps have to fight for – between developers, ranchers, farmers, and conservationists, Sherwin says, “Water can get a little tight.
“There are people who think that agriculture takes too much water, like hay especially, it does take a lot of water to grow a good crop of hay. Fortunately, here in Montana, we have a pretty firmly embedded water law – the legislature still supports agriculture, so we haven’t felt hugely threatened yet.”
For now, farmers have a good grip on the hose, but according to Sherwin, “That’s going to be more and more of an issue as time goes on.”
“There are competing interests who have put out big money to try to purchase the lake water and that has taken some of the water from agriculture. The city of Bozeman has a standing offer of $6,000 an acre foot for the lake water, and when you have a hundred, or in our case a little more than that in lake water, that can be pretty tempting.”
Lots of people come to the Gallatin Valley because of the elevation, but it’s usually for the skiing. The Leeps love the altitude, too, but it has less to do with snowy slopes and more to do with strategic farming.
“Our operation works pretty slick in a way, because there’s a little bit of climatic difference between the north and south end of the valley,” says Sherwin. “The north is a little bit earlier, and as you gain elevation heading south to Gallatin Gateway, everything’s a little bit later. So we start in the north, and just try to keep moseying along from north to south. And in so doing, we can be pretty timely, with both the grain and the hay, with just one set of equipment and not too many people. So it adds quite a bit of efficiency just from that standpoint.”
Besides good old-fashioned hard work and creative business strategies, the Leeps insist that the secret to their success is just being neighborly. More people might mean more neighbors, but the Leeps choose to use that to their advantage. Sherwin says they try to live by a saying they learned from an old Dutch potato farmer, “Take care of your friends, but treat your neighbors the best.”
Judging by the Leeps’ ability to expand in such a tough market, it’s worked out pretty well for them. Despite skyrocketing land prices, they’ve gone from owning only 20 percent of their farm ground to about 70 percent.
“Treating everybody straight up as much as possible has created opportunity for us. We feel really fortunate about how we’ve been able to grow,” says Sherman.
By being good neighbors, the Leeps have not only been able to gather up more acres, they’ve also been able to improve their existing land.
“We trade some ground with potato farmers,” Greg says. “We rent them some of our ground and then they’ll trade us some hay ground. Some of it we do cash leases but some of it we actually trade acres. We put hay up on their place and they put potatoes on our ground. So it helps both of us with rotation.”
The Leeps’ good neighbor policy applies to water usage as well.
“That’s always going to be little bit of a tug-of-war, between the competing interests. The water rights are such that, especially with the Gallatin River, that you could completely dry it up if you wanted to. But I think all of us recognize how important it is not to let that happen, with the recreational interests that we have in this area,” says Sherwin. “We work together with people to try to keep both parties alive. We try to keep everybody somewhat happy when the water gets tight.”
Farming in the Gallatin Valley might feel a little cramped these days, but the Leeps don’t waste time grumbling about it. Rather, they are happy where they are. “It’s mostly irrigated and productive land, so we’re very fortunate,” Sherwin says. “Having the opportunity to work out-of-doors in creation the way we do, and with our family, has just been an incredible blessing. To work together and to grow it together.”
The Leep brothers laugh and say, “Maybe it’s time for a career change…” but in the end, there’s nothing they’d rather be doing, and nowhere else they’d rather be doing it – after all, it’s a popular place for a reason.