REFERENCES & RESEARCH:
Guests: Laura Kiehl, Janet Kiehl, Orren Kiehl, Austin Kiehl, Diane Ahlgren, Charlie Ahlgren, Reba Ahlgren, Shaylie Ahlgren and Kelly Beevers
Writing, reporting, producing and editing: Megan Torgerson
Fact checking: Laura Nowlin
Story editing: Mary Auld
Sound design, mixing, music composition and additional editing: Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer, Hazy Bay Music
EPISODE FUNDING PARTNERS:
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Charlie Ahlgren: If you were to ask what’s one of your largest concerns, it’s absolutely out of state absentee land owners buying up property and either just hunting on it or letting it sit idle. It’s probably one of the number one threats we have in agriculture and even in Petroleum County, it's being bought up left and right.
Diane Ahlgren: how do we make it cool for a rancher to say I gave someone an opportunity rather than I sold my place for $10 million. Like I say, we’re attempting to put our money where our mouth is, and so I’m hoping people are thinking about o.k., we need to get people back on the land.
Austin Kiehl: Hopes for the community? I guess, that kind of is my hope that people want to invest in the community and want to be here. I want people to stay here. I want our school to at least hold its numbers steady, you know? Keep young families here.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today we’ll journey to Winnett, Montana, a small town with big aspirations on the Musselshell Plains that’s tucked between sandstone rimrocks and Highway 200. I visited Winnett at the muddy end of winter, as part of a road trip around Montana to meet producers who are transforming their corners of agriculture, and the landscape of family farming and ranching across the state.
My journey started in Seattle, my home until my move back to Montana this summer. From there I drove to Missoula to borrow my parents’ 4Runner, which was the right vehicle for the trip due to its superior traction and Montana plates. I packed the car to the back with audio equipment and provisions including a long list of Winnett family addresses.
After 13 hours on the road, I finally got east of the last mountains surrounding Lewistown. Here, the land out the window began to smooth out and resemble my childhood home of Dagmar in the northeast corner of Montana. But the country surrounding Winnett is breaky and most of it’s rangeland, where at home cultivated crops dominate your view from the road. Conscious that the cattle industry plays a bigger role in the economy of Petroleum County, I was worried I may have lost some of my ranching lexicon from childhood. Since my parents aged out of the cattle game 11 years ago, focusing their energy on wheat and durum production, I’ve spent more of my visits home around the cycles of farming than ranching. And I wanted to find common ground with the folks I was meeting in Winnett to prove that I wasn’t just helicoptering in for a story, but that I also have skin in the game when it comes to the future of rural Montana.
Despite the agricultural nuances between the Musselshell Plains and my home region, Winnett is facing the same challenges as my home town, and many other rural communities across the West. What drove me to visit, was the community’s approach to addressing these concerns. I wanted to see for myself how these determined ranchers were uniting to take control of their own future in the face of rising land prices and a volatile food system.
Winnett is often first characterized as the only town in the least populated county in the state, but I see it more as the gateway to the vast plains of Eastern Montana. It’s a diverse landscape held together by intact sagebrush, mixed grass prairie and the people who love it. There are badlands and benches, patches of timber that trail off from the Little Snowy and Judith mountains, and cottonwood-lined creeks that wedge through plains extending all the way to my farm nearly 300 miles east and beyond.
In this rain shadow of astern Montana, time is often measured by droughts and floods. Water, too much or too little of it, creates its own cycle of boom and bust. Extreme weather events and the harsh economics of farming, have forced some people off this unsympathetic land. For the families who remained, many connect their origins back to the discovery of oil near Cat Creek in 1920. Some can speak to earlier ties to sheep herders and cattlemen like the town’s namesake Walter Winnett who came to the area during the open range era of the 1880s. Others can trace their roots back thousands of years to the original people who stewarded these lands: the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Blood, Cheyenne, Chippewa-Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Metis, Northern Arapaho, Sioux and Shoshone. Before this land was the cattle country it is known for today, it was home to these First Peoples and the bison herds they lived alongside. After the attempted genocide of buffalo and Plains Tribes, the area that today comprises Petroleum County, was annexed into Blackfeet Territory until the Lame Bull Treaty was broken in 1873 and the was made available for homesteading to white settlers.
Winnett was founded in 1914. Shortly thereafter a branch of the Milwaukee Railway connected Winnett to the rest of the west via the main line in Lewistown. At that time there were an estimated 3,000 people living in the county. The last train came through town in 1972, but the population started dipping after the first discovery of oil at Cat Creek, with the sharpest declines mirroring the economic crises and inhospitable weather of the 1930s and ‘80s.
Today, the population of Petroleum County hovers around 500, but outside interest in the area’s intact prairie ecosystem and thriving trophy elk population, has increased the number of people and groups invested. With inflated land prices now reflecting the value of land’s recreational rather than agricultural potential, absentee landownership has been on the rise making it harder for producers, young and old, to purchase pastureland and hay ground. This makes it more challenging for both new producers to get into the business and for senior ranchers to pass down their operations.
Despite these challenges, people who live in Winnett told me they're optimistic about the future of their town. Farmers and ranchers tend to be eternal optimists, but Winnett has something a lot of other rural communities don’t – an organized group of local residents dedicated to sustaining a strong community in the face of change. That group is Winnett ACES and it’s guided by the belief that responsible land management is best done by local people who fully understand the needs of the land and the community. A true example of asset-framing, Winnett ACES first defines itself by the collective’s hopes and dreams, rather than the obstacles they face.
And they’ve started to achieve their goals through a holistic and solution-oriented mindset, openness to work with outside groups from the World Wildlife Fund to Pheasants Forever, and an unshakable ability to speak honestly about the challenges that face the county’s working lands, one main street and only public school. To learn more about the driving forces behind this producer-led and -founded group, I met with one of the ranching families that has been involved with ACES from the very beginning, the Kiehls.
To get to the Kiehl’s, I crossed a layer of icy water that gathered in the shoulders of a gravel road then pooled across the middle. Their house lays at the end of a bend in a steep road and their yard reminds me of our neighbors’ back home. Nestled between hills, it feels safe and cozy. When I get out of my car, I’m greeted by one of the Kiehl’s border collies who is excited to see me and show me around the corrals.
Orren Kiehl: That’s one of our hired hands right there that you just heard.
Laura Kiehl: Rosie
Megan Torgerson: Hey Rosie.
Orren: Well we had a busy night last night.
Megan: Yeah how many calves did you have?
Orren: I don’t really know the barns were full though.
Torgerson (narrating): Orren Kiehl and his wife Laura have been ranching together since 1988. When I visit Laura has a pink silk scarf tied around her neck to stave off the cold of early calving season.
Laura: The cows are talking now. We want to eat!
We had to haul hay in over by Wibaux and Ritchie this year to have enough.
Megan: Well hopefully you won’t have to buy hay this year?
Laura: Hopefully, we’re hoping. It’s looking like we’ll have more irrigated water anyway.
Megan: That’s good.
Torgerson (narrating): Laura and Orren ranch along Flat Willow Creek, a branch of the Mussellshell River that’s nestled below the Rattlesnake Rims whose namesake live in vast numbers in the sloping sagebrush hills. They raise cow calf pairs and their cattle herd is part of one big ranching business they run with Orren’s family. In their creek bottom live four generations of Kiehls, including Orren’s mom, Janet who has several rattlesnake stories and is one of the toughest cowgirls I have ever met.
Janet Kiehl: Well I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. Well I can remember when I was a little kid. Guess I was about 3 or 4 years old I can remember this rattlesnake trying to crawl up on the raft with us. I remember that. So they can swim. They can swim very well.
Torgerson (narrating): The Kiehls, who have lived in the area so long their road is named Kiehl Ranch Road, are one of the families that share ancestry with Walter Winnett. With more than a century in the area, the Kiehls have outlasted several farm crises, including the crisis of the ‘80s which they survived with 10 cattle. They held on and painstakingly built their herd back up. Today the ranch provides multiple family members with work.
Laura: In about 1991 we bought this neighboring place and his cattle. And Jan, my mother in law's brother had some cattle that we took in on shares. And we bought some cattle at the livestock yards. We pieced together another herd and just have grown from there.
Torgerson (narrating): Living along a creek bottom, they’ve also weathered numerous floods.
Laura: It's been incredible struggle for a lot of the people along the rivers. Right here on Flat Willow Creek in 2011 the waters were high for almost a month. Historically, 500 year flooding levels. And so it just changed the way – we couldn't even get our
bulls to our cattle. Our bulls were on one side and our cattle were on the other.
But I very much appreciate the trials and the work that my family has gone through to be able to stay in this country. It's not an easy country. And you have to really accept the hard times because they are just as numerous as the good times.
Torgerson (narrating): Laura’s appreciation for her agricultural heritage runs deep. As the oldest of three girls, she was her dad’s right-hand-woman when she was growing up, helping run machinery and work cows. After high school she spent a year at college in Missoula, a time that helped her realize she was happiest when she was in nature and ranching. Shortly thereafter Laura and Orren married and then raised kids and livestock on Flat Willow Creek, a site that has stewarded so much life and hope for the Kiehl family.
Laura invited me into her house to talk about Winnett ACES. When I walked in, I noticed a photograph of a long line of cowboys from the Montana Centennial Cattle Drive above an old upright piano. Part of their home was once a country school and inside the pantry you can see some of the school’s original hardwood flooring. Their living room feels very Montanan. There’s a wood fired stove in the corner for when the electricity goes out, a pitched ceiling and exposed beams that make the room feel big, and a lodge pole pine banister heading up the stairs that Orren made by hand. My favorite part of their living room is their taxidermy collection which includes a commanding bull elk mount with an impressively symmetrical rack.
Next to their home is a red barn Laura and Orren once converted into a venue for their daughter’s wedding. Orren built a bar for the occasion and they installed a dance floor for two-steppers and a live band. Family, community and keeping their ranching roots alive are obvious staples of the Kiehls’ life. Laura, who is also a conservation district supervisor, is not only committed to conserving this way of life, but also the biodiversity of this land, reasons she got involved with Winnett ACES.
Laura: When it came time to name the group, we all had several ideas and I proposed the ACES name, the agricultural community, enhancement and sustainability. And so it stuck. There's other groups in the country that are named ACES, but it's not Winnett ACES. That just kind of covered everything that we were doing. It didn't specifically say, farmers or ranchers, it's the agriculture community that we are and what we want to do with it.
Megan: Some people who aren't familiar with this type of life don't understand how ranching is beneficial for the environment and conservation. And I think that's something that people who grew up on for environment ranching have a greater understanding for, but it wasn't for example, language that I really heard growing up at home.
Megan: But it seems like ACES is using more conservation-minded language. What do you think about that and how has conservation been an ethic in your ranching? Or has it kind of gone unspoken?
Laura: I think it has largely gone unspoken, up until the last 10 years. Then people have started to realize that the ranchers that are using the grasslands beneficially aren't abusing them. Once you get down to looking at where the sagebrush is still intact,
that it helps hold the snow so that the grasses are watered and brings nutrients the sage, which brings nutrients up to them. And so that can be very nutritious feed for our livestock. And the fences that seem to be bothersome to others who don't understand why we have them, are what helps us keep the pastures in good condition by being able to hold the livestock off of certain areas, and in certain areas in the times of year when they need to be.
So people are starting to, rather than decide that we need to be pushed off of this land, that maybe we need to be under understood a little better.
Torgerson (narrating): One of the ways ACES is working to make the ecological benefits of ranching better understood is by fostering more activity on Winnett’s main street. This is the work of their community enhancement committee which recently began renovating the former Odd Fellows Hall, now called 55 Main, a two-story building that’s sat vacant since 1989. It will soon house a coffee shop, visitor’s center, laundry facilities and a public restroom on the main floor, along with a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. This committee is also currently renovating the upstairs of Winnett’s historic courthouse which will soon have office spaces and apartments for lease. It was also in charge of launching the Petroleum County Community Center which has since branched off and formed its own nonprofit.
To better understand how these offices and public spaces will enhance residents’ life and visitors’ experiences of Winnett, I ask what ACES hopes to revive through these renovation projects.
Laura: Well, I guess, some of the businesses that people go to the big towns for, why not have it here. We're welcoming and we have a lot of traffic on the highway. People are on their way to someplace else, and we're a long way from other towns. So I think it'll be fun to offer the types of businesses like coffee or ice cream or baked goods that people like to stop and experience.
And there's a lot of hunters and fishermen that come to our community. And they dearly loved it when the Cozy Corner was open and they could go have pie. Homemade pie is a big deal and those types of places, people just love to talk about and come visit.
And so while they're here, they need to have services like laundry facilities and just places to stay. Whether it's for long term, the apartments that are going to be at the top floor of the courthouse and the office spaces that different businesses have already spoken for. That's pretty incredible to have the opportunity to put five office spaces in the courthouse in the floor that hasn't been used since, again, the ‘70s, and already have it spoken for and the construction hasn't really even started.
Torgerson (narrating): While the construction hasn’t started on the courthouse, the beautiful new community center is up and running, and ACES has successfully moved the historic Odd Fellow Hall to its new home on the west end of town. Some neighbors doubted the project, but it was a cause for celebration for the committee who appreciates its importance to Winnett’s history.
The two story commercial building is over 100 years old and features the false front architecture that was popular in the Old West for its more established and prosperous appearance. The defining feature of these storefronts is a high square top that extends above the roof to obscure its view from the front. It’s the style of building that’s featured in Western movies or shows like Deadwood. When I visit, Winnett’s false front building has a fresh coat of white paint on it, but it’s still a long way from being the community gathering space ACES envisions.
Laura roped her son Austin into being on the community enhancement committee, because he’s excited to see a coffee shop in the old building. I wanted to hear how the up and coming generation is getting involved with the changes ACES is making in town, so I met Austin at the historic hall, where he singlehandedly repaired the gable roof over the course of a few weeks last spring.
Austin: I think other people want to help, but not a lot of people want to get up there.
Megan: Yeah. So you're not afraid of heights?
Austin: I’m not. It took a little, you know, crawling up a ladder, that stinking height. It took me a little bit to get used to it.
I kind of wanted to see if I could even do it.
Megan: well you did it. Do you want to go inside?
Austin: Yes I’m cold.
Megan: me too.
Torgerson (narrating): We come in 55 Main around the back, walking on narrow planks of holy metal angled at a steep incline toward the only way in. There are several doors on the back wall, but until the rear of the building is renovated, most of the doors lead to nowhere. Propped up beside the back are a pair of new wooden doors that wait to be hung. The new doors are branded with cattle brands, the pride of local ranchers. (I keep my dad’s old branding iron safe in my living room.) Inside, it’s cold, but you can see the potential. I’m reminded of the drafty old houses that are fixed up in romantic movies like “The Notebook” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Like the Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, Austin is tall and generous. Like all of ACES volunteers he’s donated all his time renovating the building.
Austin moved away from Winnett after high school to attend Rocky Mountain College in Billings where he earned his pilot’s license. To get miles under him, he landed an interesting summer job: he flew planes above the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, pulling crab shack advertisements and banners that read “Will you Mary Me.” But his mom Laura says his heart was never far from the ranch.
Laura: Austin knew he was staying here from the time he was a small child. He always told us “I'm never leaving, and my house is gonna be right up there on the hill”. Well, his house isn't on the hill, but he's still here. He's always loved this. And for whatever reason, he gained a love for airplanes. His dad flies. Orren’s brother flies. My uncle flies.
Torgerson (narrating): On the ranch Austin’s dad and uncle fly to check livestock, track water lines and control predators. During the summer months, Austin flies for his business custom spraying alfalfa fields and crops like spring wheat, winter wheat, sugar beets and corn. When I was visiting he was in charge of the night shift checking for new baby calves and to see if young mother cows needed help.
Austin: The way I kind of think of it is fall, winter spring my number one is Kiehl Ranch. Summer number one is Kiehl Flying Service, which is my business.
Torgerson (narrating): As someone who’s had to respond to people’s stereotypes about farming, ranching and rural life, I ask Austin whether he encountered any misconceptions of rural Montana in the time before he came home.
Austin: When I did that job in Maryland, like they couldn't like, “what are you doing here? You know, why would you come from Montana all the way to do this thing?” So I guess you know, I don't I maybe don't fit that mold of like never wanting to leave the farm.” You know, up here in Montana, everything's ride horses every day. Like, I like to travel. And you know, I did that job in Maryland and loved it. I missed that job every darn summer. That was so much fun. But yeah, I guess, yeah. They're just kind of surprised. You know, like, yeah, small town kid from Montana. What the heck are you doing down here?
Megan: And since you've left and come back, I'm curious if you've appreciated different parts of Winnett more than you might have when you lived here before or noticed different things with that perspective of having lived in in Billings and in Maryland? Or did it stay kind of the same when you got back? Was it just like old hat falling back into it?
Austin: I never truly like like “left, left.” I always kind of had one foot on the ranch. So I was always involved. I always knew what was going on. You know, when I came back a little bit more, I just kind of fell in the middle old habits. As far as the community goes, when I came back after college and stuff it at that point is pretty much same old, same old, but then the ACES thing fired up and the community enhancement and all these things that have just kind of taken our community to the next level. So it's a lot of cool things are happening.
Megan: It's really exciting. How have you seen it change the community I guess, compared to when you were growing up? Did people just have more pride in the community or how have you seen things change?
Austin: Yeah, maybe some more pride. It seems like before we were kind of stuck in our ways. Just fine with things being the way that they've always been. But when the ACES came online, it's like, this bunch of people, y mom being one of them, I wasn't really involved at the beginning, but like they thought we can we can do better.
Megan: I feel like not every community would come together in the way that you have. I don't know if you have any insights into this, but what is unique about Winnett?
Austin: Geeze, I don’t know. Are we that unique? You don't think that like any town, if the right group of people got together and kind of just got the movement started, people would come out of the woodwork? Kind of like myself, like the Odd Fellows and being involved in these projects, kind of puts me in groups with people that I wouldn't have really interacted with. So it’s kind of changed my the way I am in the community.
Torgerson (narrating): While this isn’t in their mission statement, Winnett ACES is providing Austin and other members with opportunities to show up and strengthen ties with people in their community. It isn’t just about using the sweat equity of volunteers to complete a coffee shop, it’s about the process of uniting folks to build something together. Austin mentions that the 55 Main project gave him the opportunity to get to better know two families in Winnett, the Bradys and the Kings.
Austin: We've got a lot of shared time just working on that building and just doing random projects and joking and poking fun at each other. And you know we're not neighbors with the Brady's, so haven't really gotten a lot of opportunity to interact with them.
Megan: I think that people not from small towns have this idea that everybody knows and kind of hangs out with one another.
Megan: But yeah, that's not always true.
Megan: Everybody has their own operation they're working on.
Austin: We're all busy.
Torgerson (narrating): Despite being busy on the Kiehl Ranch and flying in the summertime, Austin has made time for his community. And he’s determined to make the coffee shop a reality. Standing in 55 Main that day, it was largely empty and the winter wind snuck in through the cracks. A few process photos hung inside documenting when the concrete foundation was set, the day the building was loaded up onto a flatbed truck and the time before the building was moved when the windows were broken and the siding was peeling off. While the building has a long way to go, the before and after pictures are truly astonishing. It makes me believe Austin can pull his dream off.
Megan: Paint of picture for me of what this will look like?
Austin: So the whole front will be glass. That was supposed to happen this week. We're supposed to get the glass installed. But weather kind of jacked that up. So yeah, it'll be nice view out the front. This will kind of be like workspace for coffee shop, ice cream shop, whatever ends up being down here. And then just kind of a large event space up here.
All of us have some random idea. And then Lauren Nowlin is like, yeah, yeah you should do that. So my random idea is I want to make this space into like a little reading nook. So like, make use of the area under the stairs and you know, kind of so that's gonna be another pet project of mine.
I can picture like a nice little bench built in window. Good lighting. Nice little nook under the staircase. Cozy in the winter time.
Megan: That's great. I love that idea.
And why were you so excited to like have it be a coffee shop? Did you miss having coffee shops since you've kind of lived in bigger places?
Austin: Yeah, I love a good cup of coffee. And a cup of coffee made with Winnett water leaves a little something to be desired. Chlorine, you know?
Megan: To have a place with a good cup of coffee?
Austin: Yeah. And kind of a place to gather meet somebody read a book, just kind of low key atmosphere. When I was in college I loved going to places like that.
Megan: It's nice like because the bar isn’t open all day.
Austin: Yeah you don’t want to meet in a bar sometimes, too.
Yeah, sometimes you don't want to go to the bar.
Torgerson (narrating): Curious what Austin hopes for his community beyond the gathering space of the coffee shop, I ask:
Megan: What are some of your hopes for the community because you have a lot of life ahead of you. And like ACES is helping to create a future that you want to see for your community. But like can you paint a picture for me of what ripple effects ACES could have that would help make it a community that you and other people would want to continue to invest in and live in?
Austin: Hopes for the community? I guess, that kind of is my hope that people want to invest in the community and want to be here, which I think that's already changing.
There's some younger couples that are here that without the proactive approach that ACES has, I don't know if they they'd be here. I want people to stay here. I want our school to at least hold its numbers steady, you know? Keep young families here.
Torgerson (narrating): To maintain an agricultural community that young families continue wanting to be part of, the biggest issue ACES has been working to address since day one is the inaccessibility of land. For some historical context, I ask Austin’s grandma, Janet Kiehl the rattlesnake fighter from earlier in the episode, what the price of land was when her father was purchasing ground to build up their herd in the 1940s.
Janet: It was all open range. The homesteaders had left and there was a lot of land and it was selling for 50 cents an acre.
Torgerson (narrating): Today there are parcels of land in Petroleum County selling for more than $5,000 an acre. Online descriptions for some of these acres read: “Perfect hunting location and close to the Musselshell River. Lot has access to electricity. Shallow drilling for wells.”
To better understand the complexity of outside interest and land access in Petroleum County, I sit in on a land committee meeting attended by ACES staff and committee members including Laura Kiehl. Laura and I are running late after our interview at her ranch. On the drive back to town, the reminiscent smell of cow manure, hay and the car heater running on high brings me back to my childhood. After we shake off the cold and set our muddy boots by the door, we find seats around a big table in ACES office, the very first building you pass when you turn into town.
Inside a hanging hand-stitched quilt, catches my eye. It says “My home’s in” above a map of Montana including outlines of all 56 counties with a big heart stitched over Petroleum County. There’s also a giant screen for virtual meetings and a Petroleum County-shaped wooden sign, made from what appears to be salvaged barnwood with Winnett ACES’ logo lovingly painted over top. The meeting is led by Kelly Beevers, a consultant who has been working with ACES since 2020. The group has convened to hash out language for use in grant applications. I felt bad for coming in a little late and was timid when I hit record, but as a grant writer, I felt quickly at home nerding out over words, and I also enjoyed commiserating over the frequency the hit show “Yellowstone” comes up in casual conversation these days.
Kelly Beevers: You know what, no one who saw Kevin Costner is coming to Winnett, Montana, nor would we necessarily want them to.
Laura: I can’t believe how much that comes up when you’re in conversations when you’re in Helena, or listening to the news or reading the paper.
Kelly: Go to an airport and people are like, you’re from Montana.
Megan: Yeah, tell someone you’re from Montana and not be in the state and it comes up every time
Kelly: I bet that in Seattle you’re just constantly dealing with it.
Megan: I’m like no, life is not like your TV show.
Torgerson (narrating): Back to reviewing ACES’ grant language, we discuss the best way to articulate how widespread the issue of accessing land in Petroleum County has become.
Kelly: This again is language that is going to tell the funder why. So this is setting the tone of like why is this an issue. And it currently reads: “As both land prices increase at an exponential level and the average age of farmers and ranchers steadily increases, the profile of who owns land is changing across Montana, the Musselshell plains and Petroleum County. Though family owned and operated land still account for the majority of private lands in the area, it is projected that an increasing number of the next generation of producers will be unable to purchase land at current market values.”
Diane Ahlgren: I think that's an understatement. “It is projected that an increasing number of the next generation of producers will be unable to purchase land.” That's way way there.
Torgerson (narrating): This is Diane Ahlgren chiming in. Diane is the first Winnett resident I spoke with before my reporting trip. On the phone she was charming and honest, telling me she likes “someone with a passion for something” and that whatever I was going to do with this story, that it better be strong. That’s what Winnett deserved, she said. Friendliness and candor aren’t something you always find together in a person, but Diane has it in spades. And while she isn’t large in stature, at a well-attended succession storytelling event ACES held at their new community center the night before, she held court.
She makes her voice heard at the land committee meeting too.
Kelly: And I mean we can say something different than an increasing number, we can say that most of the next generation.
Diane: I think it’s to the point that even established places can’t buy quite often.
Kelly: Yeah, how do we make it punchier then?
Diane: I don’t know if it needs changed, I’m just commenting, but maybe it does, maybe they do need to realize that it’s just – or I think it’s just completely beyond.
Kelly: What was the language you used even existing.
Diane: Well even established ranches I think. You can’t, you might be able to buy a little piece but I don’t see even how established ranches can touch a lot of this stuff.
Megan: It creates more urgency because you’re saying it’s happening now, not that it will happen too I think.
Kelly: Mmm I like that.
Torgerson (narrating): Elk hunting is one of the biggest sources of outside interest in this area and while hunting lodges, outfitting and trespass fees provide ranching families a second line of income, it’s a double-edged sword. This interest has not only jacked up the price of land, when hunters buy up properties and don’t engage with the community, it takes agricultural land, along with the families who could have lived here and contributed to the community, out of circulation.
Curious to learn how the trend to sell to hunters started, I meet Diane at her house to ask about the origins and ripple effects elk have had in the area. We’re seated at a square table constructed from wood by her husband Skip. I like things that are handmade, so keep my eye out for examples of local craftsmanship around town. One evening, I spot the horse and rider silhouette, an iconic statue that Skip made, that sits on the rims keeping watch over Winnett.
During our conversation, Diane mentions the first elk came down from CMR, or the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge that encompasses over 1 million acres surrounding Fort Peck Reserve northeast of Winnett.
Megan: So I'm kind of curious how the area has become such a hotspot for hunting and when did that, because I'm assuming that wasn't always that way?
Diane: No, it wasn't. I would say predominantly over the last 20 years. I think the first elk that we saw was a ‘95 or ‘96. They have just been expanding from basically the CMR area over the years.
So you know how to ask the tough questions here. Because so the elk issue, is it's a tough one too.
That's my windy stove that's being noisy. They gave us the hurricane cap for the top, but it's not helping very much. So sorry about that.
Megan: It’s okay.
Diane: Anyway, uh, oh the elk.
A couple of places have been subdivided. It's hard to believe that people will buy 20 acres in this arid country, but they will.
And a lot of it is hunters, some of them buy it sight unseen, because they just want out of the rat race and I don't blame them. But then they come and it's like, no phone, no electricity, no water half the time. I mean, so there's a lot of turnover with those little plots.
And once again, my personal opinion, you hear folks that say that rancher is decimating the land. Well you go through one of those subdivisions and see what's happening there.
Megan: What does the land look like there?
Diane: A lot of them want to run some horses and in it so you put horses on 20 acres your farm girl you know what happens. It just takes out everything grass wise.
Most of them will lease out some grazing. It’s not grazed to the extend that it could be. Some of them don't graze at all. And our lodgepole fire of 2017 went through one of those subdivisions. They love to build down in the trees. I don't know how many millions of dollars were spent because that's the priority on a fire is to save homes.
Torgerson (narrating): 20 acres of land is a tiny plot considering the predominant type of farming and ranching that takes place in Eastern Montana. And it’s more often than not listed as a hunting oasis online. I have seen similarly-sized parcels of land for sale in my home county, in Montana’s extreme northeast corner. In recent years, more people have discovered that Eastern Montana is a prime area for pheasant hunting, so land listings will tout things like “a slice of paradise… where the birds and the antelope play.” If you’ve worked on the land, or lived through a winter, you would know that while it’s beautiful, it’s definitely not paradise.
It’s promising to hear that some absentee land owners with more acreage are renting pastureland to local ranchers for their cattle to graze in Petroleum County, which enables some local management of the land, but it doesn’t provide the same benefits as having someone live on the land full time. Diane speaks to how she set out to help get more young people back on the land.
Diane: My main reason for getting into it to begin with, was these ranches selling for huge amounts to nontraditional owners, nonranching owners. And I was just mad all the time about it and I was looking for something to be proactive rather than mad and reactive all of the time.
And so Brian, came in and they've got the Matador Ranch up by Malta, that does the grass bank, and that's kind of where we've been focused is a grassbank with focus on young producers. So trying to help someone get a herd established, so they could go back to the ranch. We're now calling it more of a business incubator, because there's so many more things than just grazing that can go with grazing, the ecosystem services, all of that, you know, all the buzzwords have kind of come up of late.
Torgerson (narrating): The Matador Ranch has been an inspiration to ACES as they’ve worked to expand conservation efforts and establish a program that will offer grazing opportunities at a discount to ranchers, so they can build up and pay off their herd, and in turn build equity and sustainability into their business operation.
Conservation has been part of this county’s story since conservation districts were created in the mid-1940s in response to the farming practices and Dust Bowl of the 1930s that damaged the ecology of the American and Canadian prairies. Since then conservation districts have worked closely with ranchers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, commonly referred to as NRCS, to provide education and outreach to prevent soil erosion, promote watershed health, minimize the risk of wildfire and further grazing management strategies that promote the health of grasslands.
Diane knows the ups and downs of managing grasslands during trying environmental and economic times. She and her husband Skip started ranching from scratch in the “dirty ‘80s.”
Diane: I’ve told ‘80s stories to so many folks, they just roll their eyes when I do, but those who went through it, get it. It was it was our dirty ‘30s. Our generation’s dirty 30s. And people, you know, folks were telling their kids run for your life, because there's ranches going under. There's banks that were going under and Skip and I weren't smart enough to take that advice. So we had had to give it a whirl. We decided to lease a place in 1983. And, yeah, grasshoppers. Interest rates were over 18% on our operating loan. Prices were down all the I don't know what we were thinking. You know, you're young and yet we had somebody gave us that opportunity. So we went for it. We only lasted two years. Or little over almost three, I guess we made it. And then it was our bank dropped us. And so we got out with a few cows, poor little scraggly things. They'd been raised on grasshopper juice and pine needles. They weren't pretty but they were they were scroungers. They knew how to survive.
Everything since then it's look like a piece of cake. So we got out with our little bunch of cows went to work for an irrigated place out just below Kiehls, where you who you're going to talk to. So we were there for a year and then an older couple contacted us and said they needed to lease their place or do something with their place. And they'd heard good things about us, which made us feel very good. And so we leased from them with an option to buy.
I guess to go back just real quick, I need to say so the bank dropped us. And we went to a local bank and told them what we had and what we wanted to do. And the interest had gone down a little bit at that point, but it was still like 13-14% crazy. But they came, Greg came and sat at our table and we put down what we had, which was a two inch list: cows and a pickup an old tractor. And anyway, they took us on took a chance on us. And I don't think he even went out and counted the cows. So that particular point. And the fact that the Dobson's contacted us and leased to us, I'm very grateful for.
Torgerson (narrating): Recent years have been compared to the ‘80s. I talked to my dad about this as my parents started building up their cattle herd in 1980. He brought up the high interest rates and said similar to when today’s volatile markets are in a low spell, calf prices were slumping, inputs like fuel were high and the drought was relentless.
What’s different about today though, are the jacked up land prices fueled by outside interest in the area. Curious to learn how a young family in Winnett feels these economic pressures, I speak with Diane’s nephew, Charlie and his wife Reba. They both grew up on ranches in Montana and moved to Winnett as adults. Maybe it was because we’re of similar ages, but they felt familiar, like they were hardworking ranching kids me or my sister would have known from Class C volleyball or football tournaments growing up .
They met me at the Airbnb I was staying at directly across from the school in Winnett that they happen to own and rent out. It was my last day in town and I was lucky to catch them. Calving is a busy time of year, and Reba and Charlie have kids in school and in sports, and the couple is also active in ACES and on the school board. It was shortly before dinner before we got together and I didn’t want to hold them up for too long, so I was grateful they were willing to dig in quick to tough questions.
Charlie Ahlgren: If you were to ask what’s one of your largest concerns, it’s absolutely out of state absentee land owners buying up property and either just hunting on it or letting it sit idle. It’s probably one of the number one threats we have in agriculture and even in Petroleum County it’s being bought up left and right and either not using it or just hunting on it or it’s not staying in agriculture. So it’s concerning.
Reba Ahlgren: Not only the concern of it not being in agriculture anymore, but the concern that’s been discussed a lot is that’s not kids in your school then and you don’t have people supporting your store. You don’t have people on the local fire department. It just takes away from a lot of those essential needs in a community when that land is vacant or taken out of production.
Torgerson (narrating): Outside pressures, like absentee landownership that inflates real estate prices, and low calf prices caused by corporate consolidation and the lack of competition in the meatpacking industry, have myriad local consequences. It’s not just that ranchers receive 37 cents on every dollar spent on beef in the grocery store today, compared with 62 cents in 1980. When ranchers get pinched, they have no choice but to make decisions that are at odds with how they want to run their herd and conserve their land.
Charlie’s aunt Diane knows this hard reality.
Diane: When you got that bank loan hanging over your head and you’re trying to get your cows through and just make it, conservation is kind of down on the list a little bit. I just want to emphasize the economics that have to be considered when you’re thinking about your place and conservation and all the many factors that go into it.
Torgerson (narrating): Charlie, Reba and producers across the West have experienced parallel challenges. When ranchers are pressed financially – say it’s May in a year without much snow and a rancher is running out of hay – they may be forced to alter the grazing plan that’s in place to help them reach their conservation goals. This might mean they have to bring cattle onto a pasture they had hoped to save to allow that grass to mature to a certain level. Or they may have to let cattle graze on a pasture longer than they would have liked.
Ranchers in this semi-arid steppe climate have worked since the ‘40s to improve the environmental resilience of their land. They know that when their soils and grasslands are healthy, as we heard in our last episode with Blackfeet rancher Latrice Tatsey, their herds are healthier and so are the people who consume their beef. Healthy plants mean more dung beetles and less parasites, making for hardier calves that require less doctoring and that sell for better prices. When the soil is healthy it can also act as a buffer during times of drought and it can absorb more water during a flood event.
Ranchers are rewarded for their efforts to conserve their land in the long-term, but as Winnett ACES land health specialist, Kendall Wojcik told me “they’re taking on all this risk for producing food for the rest of us.”
Charlie speaks to the on the ground realities of this.
Charlie: Honestly, at the end of the day, we’re just kind of trying to eke out of living best we know how, with the resources available to us. Obviously we learned an awful lot about this country, especially from Skip and Diane, but yet we went to a lot of different workshops and things like that. And I felt like we’ve taken something from every one of them. By no means do I guarantee that we’re not going to fail still. But whether it be you know, our mineral program, or our grazing program, or our leases or anything, it’s just you know, at the end of the day, we’re trying to make a living, but we’re doing it with that holistic mind frame of like you can’t be so focused on one thing, versus what works best in the big picture.
It has to work as a whole, to accomplish the goal of us making money at the end of the day and our livelihood. I think with Reba’s work being tied to NRCS. And the information that that she has at her disposal and her talents of water system and infrastructure and in grazing management definitely played key parts in it. We use a fair amount of temporary electric fence and we rotate through pastures and try to give a good rest and use them for a shorter duration as we can.
But like Diane said, at one point in time, there’s certain conditions and times that are going to force you to do things that maybe aren’t the most ethical for what is best for the ranch in general, but it’s what has to happen to make it through too. And the last two or three years it’s been pretty trying in Petroleum County between drought and grasshoppers. And we picked up some leases that we wouldn’t have expected to have to or, or maybe aren’t within our comfort zone, but just doing whatever it takes to eke a living out, I guess.
Reba: I feel like we’ve been interested in the holistic and more intensive grazing stuff. Like Charlie said, just picking up bits and pieces where we can, adding those things to our operation as we’re able to. We’ve been putting in more cross fences, we have plans to put in more pipeline and tanks this summer to facilitate better grazing, but not able to do it all at once. So I guess just taking baby steps and implementing what we can and doing the best we can. The last few years have been very trying and don’t feel like we’ve been making progress. But hopefully, the years ahead will be better.
Charlie: I feel like we’re making strides before the last two or three years, but felt like we’ve done an awful lot of conservation work leading up until like 1920 and then ’20 and 21 and now 22, pretty well erased a fair jag of that. Not as much litter on the ground as we’d like to see. Not as much cover as we’d like to see, but we’ve held the cow or cow herd together to so.
Torgerson (narrating): While Charlie, Reba and so many other ranchers are having to navigate this challenging climate of doing business, to cut them a break, Charlie’s aunt and uncle sold them land for less than the appraised value. This was a deliberate decision on behalf of Diane and Skip to keep their land in agricultural production and to keep another family with kids in the school living in Petroleum County. Last year Diane and Skip also began leasing a house they own along the Musselshell River to another young ranching family. Right now they’re staying temporarily in a house they hope someone could live in to run a meat processing facility they envision for an outbuilding next door.
These efforts are all part of a cultural shift Diane hopes to make happen through ACES.
Diane: One of my things with ACES is how do we make it cool for a rancher to say I gave someone an opportunity rather than I sold my place for $10 million. And it’s private property rights, I fully agree with that. We can’t dictate what people can do, but I think we’re gaining a little bit on that just by folks talking about it. And like I say we’re attempting to put our money where our mouth is. And so I’m hoping it’s kind of changing a little bit and people are thinking about, okay, we need to get folks back on the land.
Megan: That’s an ambitious goal, because that’s, that’s changing the culture.
Diane: Yes, it is. Yeah. And not everyone is going to do it.
Torgerson (narrating): While not everyone is going to make the decision or have the retirement funds to sell their land at a discounted rate, as Diane argues it’s worth considering selling a portion of your acreage at a reduced rate given the long-term community value of keeping working families on working lands. I think she’s right. Without a leg up from the older generation, there would be far fewer people my age who could afford to ranch in their home communities. And I want to these traditions live on. So does Diane.
Diane: If someone says well look, the kids don’t want to come back, there are other options, it might take a little more work, and you probably are not going to get the big bucks. But the satisfaction of seeing those folks back on the place. It’s hard to turn it over. I’ll be honest about that because it’s kind of your identity. But I’ve tried to focus on and it’s been so rewarding, like watching Charlie and Reba, do new things, figure out how to make it work. Kids are all involved. They all ride and fence. So that’s good. It makes it worthwhile, in my opinion.
Megan: Could you tell me a little bit more about that ethic that you and Skip have to see things continue forward and see things grow and change? You know, I know some people succession planning is such a big, big thing that they don’t even do it and then they’re, then they’re next to Kin has to has to deal with that.
Diane: Right? It is a big thing. But I don’t think we have a choice because we were given that opportunity. The folks that originally, the homeplace, the Dobson someplace where Charlie and Reba are at now, they could have sold it for more. But we were given that opportunity, and I just so appreciated that I don’t think we have a choice but to pass it on.
I’ve said God strike me dead if we don’t do our best to pass those opportunities on.
Torgerson (narrating): Because the Dobsons, the family that sold to Diane and her husband originally, gave them a chance all those years ago, they now own an established ranch. And they’re bound and determined to pass on that good will and help out the next generation. Because of their generosity and foresight of what’s needed for the community, their dreams of seeing families return to Winnett are coming true.
With a combined kindergarten through twelfth grade enrollment of 60 kids, Charlie and Reba’s three kids in the school system make a big impact. Their oldest Shaylie, who as a freshman was the starting varsity point guard of the Winnett-Grass Range Rams before she tore her ACL this season, enjoys the changes happening in Winnett. Still in crutches after her knee surgery, she walked over after school to join her parents midway into our interview.
Shy at first, as I suspect most teenagers would be walking into a room with a bunch of microphones, Shaylie opens up when I ask her about basketball, horseback riding and what she thinks about the upgrades happening in her hometown.
Shaylie Ahlgren: I’m excited about the community center because like the gym is there. There’s another gym you can get to in the summer. When stuff’s going at school, you can go over there. Or during basketball practices, when high school teams had tournaments, the junior high kids were able to practice and we didn’t have to share gyms and be at the school longer.
Megan: Yeah, I guess 55 Main might be up and running after you’re done with high school, but that sounds like it’ll be a nice addition for kids growing up here, too.
Charlie: Yeah, and just a meeting place outside of the bar. Nothing against the bar, but there’s a few conversations it would be nice to have. The community center will surely help but.
Reba: Just to go have a coffee and sit at a table with somebody and visit.
Megan: Or just to hang out and read a book. Austin was telling me about this book nook that he has planned under the stairs.
Charlie: Austin is pretty revved up about coffee, that’s for sure.
Reba: It’s just exciting to the interest and what sparks different people and just the volunteer hours people have put into everything.
Shaylie: And it hopefully brings new job opportunities, like I need somewhere to work. And like there’s really just the pool for kids to work, and like I could work at a coffee shop or something. There’s always more options coming.
Reba: I think dad’s gonna be told that he needs fencing.
Charlie: I’ve got plenty of jobs for you.
Shaylie: I can’t erally work for you right now.
Charlie: That’s true.
Torgerson (narrating): Diane’s generosity made it possible for Charlie and Reba to give ranching a shot. I wanted to know if Charlie had an idea about how this culture of giving in Winnett originated?
Megan: So one question I’ve been asking people is like what do you think makes Winnett so special because I think the circumstances that are happening in Winnett, of you know trying to get kids into the school, and trying to make family farming and ranching sustainable, and keeping people working on the land, is happening all across the state. But not everybody is forming groups like ACES. And I think about where I grew up, and that this type of thing isn’t happening there. And I wish it would. But what do you think? What’s the secret sauce? Like what sets Winnett apart?
Charlie: Honestly, if I had to say one thing, the thing that I’ve appreciated moving from out of town to in town was the lack of like, compete against your neighbor type, type attitude. Where I’m from, it’s a lot of coffee shop talk of I have the biggest calves or I had the best this for some reason. I just felt like when it is really a whole lot like you do me, “you do you and I’ll do me,” and we’re not going to compete. And they feels like to me, they genuinely care as much about you succeeding as they do themselves.
Like you’ve met most of them sounds like, you know, the Kings and the Iverson’s, and the Ahlgrens and the Kiehs. I mean they genuinely want you to succeed as much as is yourself. But I hadn’t gotten that before, like coming from where I do, it’s all about and heavy weaning weights on calves and you know, one thing or another, they feel like they’re competing a little bit, but I felt like when it was far not necessarily that way. Far more supportive.
Torgerson (narrating): I believe furthering a culture of support and belonging has been an underground goal of ACES from the get go. It shows up silently in the work they do, whether it’s through a work party that brings volunteers together to paint the old Odd Fellows Hall, a night dedicated to sharing stories about the trials of succession planning, or a peer-to-peer discussion about how to handle a bad drought year where people are invited to share their resources and worries, helping them to feel less alone.
While ranching families are used to compounding stresses and wouldn’t necessarily voice it, they face an incredible amount of pressure. For multigenerational ranches, each rising generation is afraid of being the one to lose the ranch. For new ranchers, or those who aren’t working on their family’s homeplace, the fear of keeping the herd together can be ever present.
And then as you’ve heard from Diane and Laura, people outside the community have this idea that ranchers aren’t taking care of the land or that being a rancher is of lesser value to society. Laura Kiehl, who ranches along Flat Willow Creek and has the sweet border collie named Rosie, spoke about this misconception near the end of our conversation.
Laura: A large part of the perception of small town people is that we’re people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. We weren’t smart enough to leave. We weren’t worldly enough to do anything else. But I think we were wise enough to see the value of what’s here and to make sure that it’s still here for the future.
Torgerson (narrating): It’s impossible to measure the value of stewarding life and keeping communities together on these grasslands, but I assure you the impacts extend beyond the community of Winnett. I hear ACES come up in conversations outside of Petroleum County as an example other rural places should replicate.
Yet, in this small town of 170 people, the value of preserving the agricultural way of life is truly felt and seen. You can see it in the pride people have about their community. I know pride is a word that also comes with negative connotations, but when you grow up in a place that most people haven’t heard of, the dominating cultural narratives don’t encourage you to be proud of where you come from.
When I was in Winnett, one Petroleum County resident told me that an English teacher who once worked at the school described the town in a book they authored as one big trailer park. Another resident told me that for a long time the first image that showed up when you googled Winnett was a pile of tires.
I know personally that it hurts to have people think about places we’re from in this way. When I switched to a larger high school across the border in North Dakota when I was 16, I had a basketball coach who at time outs would whisper insulting words to me about the – in their opinion “lowly” small Montana town I came from – because she thought I played better angry.
But from my vantage point the narrative on small town America is changing. I can see rural stereotypes dissolve as more people share stories of hope and homecoming. And, importantly, these stories are being told by people who believe towns like Winnett are worth fighting for.
Austin, the cowboy who flies airplanes and is helping build the coffee shop in town is part of this changing story.
Austin: I think there’s a fair amount who’ve come back. I feel like it’s, oh I don’t know, It’s almost trendy to come back now.
Megan: Can you tell me more about that? What makes it trendy?
Austin: I knew you’d ask me to expand. I think it’s all the things we’ve been talking about. Good things are happening in Winnett, so it’s a good place to be, so we make it work.
Torgerson (narrating): Charlie says he sees the momentum to save our small towns build in other communities as well.
Charlie: I think there’s a little bit of a shift in general, in all the smaller communities that we play basketball against and stuff, there’s a fair – it’s becoming, I wouldn’t say it’s a runaway by any means, but there’s an emphasis, I guess on getting people back on the family places. It doesn’t seem like there has been for the last 20 years, maybe. But in the last five anyway, it feels like that there’s more of a try there than there had been.
Megan: But that’s exciting.
Charlie: Yeah, it’s necessary.
Torgerson (narrating): There’s fear among some locals that Winnett might be changing too much, that the new community center, renovated court house or coffee shop will attract people who could displace locals. But as Charlie reminds me, this change is necessary for Winnett. They need kids in the school if it’s to stay open. And if Winnett is going to maintain a population of young families, ranching needs to remain a viable career for locals who also need vibrant community spaces their families can enjoy.
I can’t picture Winnett becoming the next Whitefish, Montana, or Dover or Sandpoint, Idaho, but I understand why there’s fear and cynicism. Farmland is valuable. In the last 30 years prices have only appreciated and it’s a more stable investment than stocks. Whether outside interest is fueled by trophy hunting, the dream of an extensive nature reserve or the desire for a more diversified investment portfolio, in the cultural and economic precarity of the post-COVID climate, there are more eyes on the agricultural and recreational resources circling rural communities. And rural communities feel this.
The beauty about the pressures felt in Winnett, is that they’re being preempted by locals who are making changes. Groups like ACES are on the offensive, and they’re not against collaborating with outside groups, they have just learned to do it on terms that put their residents, their grasslands and their herds first. As I see it, Winnett is deciding what changes they are o.k. with for their community, and they are taking control of the future of their town in a way that gentrified rural towns have not.
As I hoped our earlier episode on rural gentrification in North Idaho would sound a warning call to rural towns abundant with natural amenities, I hope the story of Winnett is a blueprint for how other agricultural communities can imagine new possibilities for themselves and rally together to make it happen. This often starts with an individual, like Diane and Skip Ahlgren who sold their ranch for less than the market rate so their nephew Charlie and his family could make a living ranching. Or like Jacqueline Albright from Sandpoint, Idaho in this season’s gentrification episode who sold her house at a discount, so a local could afford to purchase it.
The return on these decisions to sell a rancher or a local, are small towns with neighbors who are invested in the community. And communities where people come together to fix up a worn down building instead of tearing it down, where they support one another’s ideas to help the next generation of producers, instead of resigning to a future that is less than ideal.
I hope ACES continues to inspire pride, optimism and action in small towns across the West, and that these communities dare to dream big about how they want their rural places to look and feel, not just today, but generations from now.
Thank you to the community of Winnett for your hospitality, candor and generosity. Thank you to Diane and Skip Ahlgren; Charlie, Reba and Shaylie Ahlgren; Laura, Orren, Austin and Janet Kiehl, along with ACES staff Laura Nowlin, Kendall Wojick and Kelly Beevers.
I’m your host Megan Torgerson and I reported, produced and edited this episode. Mary Auld was the story editor for this episode. And original music, mixing and additional editing for this episode was provided by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer at Hazy Bay Music.
This episode was supported in part by the World Wildlife Fund and One Montana. Season Three Groundwork is also funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC. Thank you for listening!