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The path less traveled: Young Montanans leave cities to farm

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Back to the CountryBack to the country – Montana is seeing quite a few younger folks leaving the city for life in the country.

by Tom Lutey, Associated Press

BRUSETT — It’s 9 a.m. and the vast Eastern Montana prairie in Casey Coulter’s windshield is giving way to piney hills and the snowcapped Little Rocky Mountains, which the former bank loan officer points to as evidence he’s not crazy.

“When I told friends I was moving they said ‘You’re going off to that country where if your dog runs off you can see him for a week,’ ” Coulter said. “Well, it’s not exactly like that.”

Banking hours are well beyond the reflection of this cowboy’s rear-view mirror. It’s a Saturday and Coulter, 32, has been racing daylight since sunrise. He wears a gray felt Stetson, thick sweater and a beige denim work vest. The banker’s neck tie has been replaced with a red kerchief.

There’s a 1-ton round hay bale spooled up for feeding in the back of his pickup and a sizable herd of Beefmaster cows waiting, pregnant and hungry, around the next bend. Southward, there are 2 inches of ice covering a stock tank that needs busting out so Coulter’s bulls can drink. Then, it’s off to spool more hay and back to the house to where his fiancé, Lacey Cleveland, is making lunch.

This is a story about life on one of the roads not only less traveled but so less traveled it’s literally a cow trail.

Increasingly, the Casey Coulters of the world, college educated and career-minded, are leaving the city to work the land, a move made possible by an improved farm economy and the realization that America desperately needs young farmers and ranchers. The nation’s ability to produce food in the future depends on it, as the average age of the American farmer creeps toward 60.

The average American farmer was 57 years old in 2007, closer to his first Social Security check than his first crop. That number, recorded in the five-year Ag Census by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, has been rising a year to 18 months every census since 1987. If the trend holds true through the 2012 census, which is still under way, the new average age will be nearly 59, this at a time when global demand for food has American farms producing more crops than ever before.


Banks are also offering favorable terms for young farmers, namely because they see the need for newcomers, not just young farmers abut minority farmers, as well. Northwest Farm Credit Service launched its “AgVision” loan program specifically for beginning, young and minority producers. The program offers less restrictive underwriting standards, competitive interest rates and waived fees, and then teams borrowers with knowledgeable staff and educational programs. Borrowers get $400 a year for computers, and training.

AgVision has been successful, said Jim Lee a relationship manager at Northwest Farm Credit Services in Billings. The number of loans issued has steadily risen and earlier borrowers are transitioning out.

“On February 28, we had $219 million in loan volume and 1,435 loans,” Lee said. “When people are in the program for six years then they can move out of the AgVision program to a regular portfolio.”

Since the beginning of 2012, roughly $48 million in loan volume attached to 300 loans has graduated out of the program, Lee said. The loans were issued to borrowers in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

via The path less traveled: Young people leave cities to farm.