New generations keep ranching tradition going
Thursday, December 6, 2018
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Pioneer photo by Nolan Lister

Sweet Grass County rancher Cali Rooney surveys her cattle Monday morning. The 26-year-old is part of a wave of the next generation taking over family ranches from their parents in the northern half of the county.

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Photo courtesy Jodi Christensen

Jodi Christensen, right, and her husband, Calvin Christensen, pose for a photo on the family land in July 1990 shortly after taking control of the operation from her parents. The Christensens are transfering the ranch to their daughter and son-in-law, the fifth generation to work the land.

Cali Rooney talks of futures and commodities at her kitchen table as if it is old hat, yet the Sweet Grass County rancher is only 26.

This year marks the first Rooney and her husband Tyler Rooney are making all the decisions when it comes to the more than 300 head of cattle on her family’s ranch. Before long, they will be the principal operators of the 8,000 acres of land at the northern end of the county.

Rooney and her husband have been working closely with her parents, Calvin and Jodi Christensen, the last few years. The family has worked out an agreement that will eventually allow the young couple to buy out Rooney’s parents, now in their 60s.

They are part of a trend in northern Sweet Grass County. At least a half dozen family ranches in the area are simultaneously undergoing a passing of the torch to the next generation.

The trend is unique because the vast majority of millennials are pursuing other careers. Between 1982 and 2012, the average age of principal operators has climbed from 50.5 to 58.3, according to the latest Census of Agriculture data compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture. Results of the department’s 2017 census will not be available until February, but the rise in average age of operators is expected to continue.

In 2012, 62 percent of principal operators nationwide were age 55 or older, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Nationally, it is an industry run by an aging population with little relief coming from the next generation. But the tightly knit community to the north is bucking that trend.

“It’s kind of in my blood,” Rooney said. “A hundred years and five generations, it would be hard to throw it all away.”

Montana Farm Bureau Federation, an agriculture industry advocacy group, is aware of the trend and is striving to bring a new generation into the fold.

The bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee was started as a way of grooming agriculturalists between the ages of 18 and 35, people its website refers to as a “rare commodity,” providing a path to industry leadership within the organization.

The local Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee hosts fundraising events such as its annual Hoofin’ It for Hunger Trail Run, seminars around the country and discussion meets intended to simulate a regular committee meeting and encourage the exchange of ideas.

Rooney placed first in the bureau’s November discussion meet held during its annual convention in Billings. She won a Polaris utility vehicle and a paid trip to New Orleans to compete in the national competition in January.

“There’s just not enough young producers coming into operations,” said Gil Gasper, the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee chairman. “For the ones who are, we want to make sure to provide them with all the resources they need to succeed. That is one of the major focuses of Montana Farm Bureau Federation.”

He stressed that importance of giving the next generation a voice and experience in leadership roles.

Those leadership skills Rooney developed participating not only in the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee but also the organization’s youth- and collegiatelevel activities serves her well in her community.

“As more young couples are coming back, we’re trying to foster that sense of community, getting back to neighbors helping neighbors,” Rooney said.

A nearby ranch operated by the Cremer family for decades is undergoing the same transition. Justin Cremer, 28, returned to the family spread three years ago after serving five years in the Navy and attending school in Billings. He is working closely with his parents in their final years as principal operators of Sweet Grass Land and Cattle. For Cremer, the agriculture industry is more of a lifestyle, one he said suits him.

He also understands the importance of being there for his neighbors and fellow young agriculturalists.

“Everyone has been here for so long, those working relationships are there,” he said. “You just have to keep them going.”

Transitions such as these are not without growing pains. There is a constant juggling act between fresh ideas and tradition, visions for the future and the way it has always been. That is not to say this is not a welcomed change.

“We’re going slow with it,” Cremer said, acknowledging that his parents Bonita and Matt Cremer have no intention of retiring any time soon, noting “It’s nice to have someone who has done this most of their life there to tell you when something is a good idea or when you’re better off doing it another way.”

That guidance will surely be the key to the next generation’s success in the industry. Rooney’s mother, Jodi Christensen, learned the importance of heeding the advice of one’s elders when she and her husband took over the ranch from her parents.

“We got a lot of experience from the older ranchers,” she said. “It was an encouraging atmosphere. They trusted us.”

Christensen said she cherishes that same relationship with her daughter and son-inlaw.

“That was always our goal, to have kids that would carry on the business,” she said. “It’s kind of selfish. You don’t want to see your hard work go to someone else. You want it to benefit your family.”