[6:30]: the threat of desertification
[8:00]: common desire for healthy soil across farm practices
[9:45]: Increase in cover cropping as reported by NRCS
[11:45]: Baby boomer farmers retiring and next generation interested in new/old practices
[13:15]: Succession planning
[17:45]: the spread of regenerative agricultural practices across Montana
[18:15: Sixth Soil Health Principle of Context
[20:00]: Emily and Jason’s collaboration process
[21:20]: How the soil changes us and farmers’ intimacy with the land
[23:00]: Bouncing back and forth about ideas
[24:00]: Interview process
[25:15]: Similarities between farmers and photographers - both see details
[26:00]: Rock climbing amid reporting trip
[28:00]: Emily’s writing process and working with the Solutions Journalism Network
[30:30]: Jason’s editing process
[32:00]: Fact checking balloons
[33:30]: Having a portfolio career and being a journalist
[36:30]: Lateral thinking and connecting different skills
[37:45]: Jason and Emily’s hope for agriculture in rural Montana after publishing “Common Ground Series”
[42:00]: Connecting new and established Montana residents
"Common Ground Series," Montana Free Press (Emily Stifler & Jason Thompson)
"The Wizard and the Prophet," Charles Mann
Guests: Emily Stifler Wolfe & Jason Thompson
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editor: Rob Upchurch
Mixer: Aaron Spieldenner, Hazy Bay Music
Season theme music: Andrew Drinnan
Episode music: Aaron Spieldenner, Hazy Bay Music
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Greater Montana Foundation
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Hi Reframing Rural listeners, happy summer! I’m Megan Torgerson, the host of this podcast and I’m flipping the script on you this last episode of Season Two to share podcast updates I normally reserve for the end.
To start, there is lots in development in my home studio currently. For the last six weeks I’ve participated in a public humanities fellowship led by the sharp and generous staff at Humanities Washington. Through this fellowship I’ve been refining the scope and structure of Reframing Rural’s third season launching this fall.
I’m so excited this little idea I had for a podcast is developing into its third season and gaining traction in the places I call home, Montana and Washington State. Season Three is shaping up to blend the best elements of my first two seasons, combining sound-rich narrative stories from farm yards, kitchen tables and small town main streets, with in-depth, long-form interviews with authors and big thinkers.
Inspired by topics researched by journalist Emily Stifler Wolfe, who you’ll hear from again in today’s episode, along with conversations I’ve had with rural advocates, friends and family, Season Three will seek to stand up for family farms by conveying just how much we need them and how we can fight to protect them. It will also explore the future of the growing regenerative agriculture movement and its Indigenous roots. Along with a deep-dive into agriculture in the West, Season Three will examine rural gentrification and the amenity economy, and the need to preserve green spaces and integrate newcomers and established residents from different class backgrounds.
If these topics pique your interest and you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard from Reframing Rural thus far, you can join individuals, and organizations like Humanities Washington and Humanities Montana, in supporting this grassroots media initiative. Reframing Rural has and always will remain free for listeners, but as you can imagine, a lot goes into the making of a podcast and donations of every size, along with reviews on Apple Podcasts and referrals to friends, all help as we prepare to launch Season Three.
Visit reframingrural.org/support to learn how you can help support the making of this original podcast series or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations help with production expenses from research to travel costs, interviews, writing, editing, mixing audio, sound design, composing original music for episodes and finally marketing and distributing.
Now without further ado, onto the second part of my conversation with Emily Stifler Wolfe and Jason Thompson, journalists behind the award-winning “Common Ground” Series published by Montana Free Press with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Farming has been at the nexus of societal change for 12,000 years. It’s said the dawn of agriculture in the Near East transformed hunter-gatherer societies into ones organized around subsistence farming, leading to the creation of ancient agricultural villages and a movement that spread across continents. In North America, natives of Turtle Island had been experimenting with horticulture and plant domestication for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and the brutal project of Manifest destiny and settler colonialism. Fast forward millennia to the industrial revolution and the decades that followed, an era of mechanization dramatically altered how we grow food and the labor supply required for food production, triggering vast emigration from countries like Norway, the land of my farming forefathers, while simultaneously drawing the concentration of populations to city centers, the hub of the industrial boom.
Today, agriculture continues to be a force of change, driving conversations around corporate consolidation, sovereignty, the right to repair, the global economy and the health of our planet. Food is a national security issue. It’s a tool for addressing the climate crisis and it’s a driver of economic stability for rural communities. Good food can also play a role in addressing physical and mental health challenges.
In the first part of our conversation, Emily, Jason and I discussed the growing regenerative agriculture movement that is fostering resilient rural economies and communities, and that’s sowing hope in the future for farm families across the West. And we discussed the role of profitability in farmers’ capacity to experiment, leaving off on the topic of micro-ecosystems and how farmers are innovating and experimenting with regenerative practices like livestock integration that Indigenous societies have mastered over thousands of years.
Everything old is new again.
We’ll pick back up with the importance of considering context when making decisions about the future of farmland, , and how no matter if farmers are conventional, regenerative or organic, they are united by a shared desire for what’s best for their soil, the health of their crops and their bottom lines, families and communities.
If you haven’t yet listened to part one of this conversation, I recommend you go back and take a listen to episode 9. In this follow up episode, Jason, Emily and I will discuss: climate, the wave of farmers who are retiring, how families are preparing for succession and the new farmers who will fill their shoes, the sixth soil health principle of context, including the history of the land and community and distance from resources and markets, and finally opportunities to connect rural and urban Montana. We’ll also learn more about Emily and Jason’s process researching, writing, photographing and assembling the three-part Common Ground Series, and how they balance life, freelance work and journalistic pursuits.
Torgerson: As we're talking about like micro-climates and different things, it brings to mind Tim Seipel’s quote from the series in which he said, “we cut the prairie sod, and then we basically mined the soil the sod had made, and now the mine is starting to go dry.” And as you're saying too now the winds are blowing even more, and that's something I've heard from people back home, too. And I know it would like vary greatly by region, but did you hear any scientists or anyone saying like how long it is until the mine runs dry if we continue business as usual, and we're really like facing desertification head on?
Wolfe: I don't know, there's that stat that “Kiss the Ground,” the movie used from the UN, it is like – oh, we've got 60 harvests left – but everything I heard is that that's a vast oversimplification, like, every piece of land is different. It depends on how we treat it. I mean, we also met with like, people who are responding. We didn't go to giant conventional farms or mid-size conventional farms, we specifically went and met with people who are responding to that problem or making change on their land. So we have whatever you want to call them, those sunglasses, those glasses on. I also think like, the climate is changing really quickly, like regardless of why, the problems are going to change, right? Like, we're going to be potentially worried about clean water and heat and food pretty soon here. And if these responses are working, I bet you they ramp up.
Torgerson: Yeah. Jason, was there something you wanted to add to that?
Thompson: I think I was just thinking about, like, you know, we talked to a lot of people who are either for or against chemicals, or no chemicals and stuff. But I think at the end of the day, everybody, it seemed like no matter what their opinion was, understood and wanted the end goal to be healthy soil, because everybody realized that that means better, better crops and healthier crops. Change doesn't happen quickly. It happens over a very long period of time, usually. And so I think as more and more people become curious, and I think for me, that's what I loved about meeting these farmers is to see how scientific they are, and curious they are. Because being curious, it's something I can relate with them about. And it seems like a lot of them, you know, yeah, maybe they're not fully on board with these regenerative practices. But they're curious enough to start trying. And I think as that momentum happens with, you know, we're hearing more about the homecoming movement in rural America, I think that these ideas that are permeating out there are going to be laying seed and in these areas, and I think like the experiments that are happening out there, as Emily said, will gain momentum.
Wolfe: There was a crazy stat from the NRCS that I got at the end, but I didn't get to include in the story that I mean, it's really hard to measure regenerative because it's not a certification. But what you can measure is the number of farmers participating in cover cropping through the NRCS cost sharing programming. And it's up a massive, massive, massive percentage in the last 10 years. Yeah. And so it's catching on, people are interested there. The funding continues to grow, not as much as the you know, the Build Back Better Act would have funded huge amounts more 100 fold or more increase in that kind of conservation funding, but it's still growing. Yeah, but what you can do is look at a sort of an indicator the number of people participating in and the number of acres participating in NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service cost share programs for cover cropping, knowing that that's of course not the total number of people who are doing cover cropping, right – but from 2010 to 2014, NRCS, worked with private landowners and applied some 3,300 acres of cover crops and contracts. And then from ‘15, through 2021, it was 120,240 acres. And then there's still another 117,000 additional acres of cover up planned and contracts to be implemented between 22 and 25. So assuming all of those planted acres in the 2015 to 2021 contracts are applied, the total of cover crops applied under those contracts would be 238,213 acres, in contracts through 2021. So looking back on the stats from the NRCS, and 2021, alone, they applied 25,000 acres of cover crops, which is still 30 times the 3,364 acres in 2014. Wow. So major growth in terms of farmer interest in programming to switch over acreage on their land. And it's not entirely covered. It's a cost share. So I think it's split in half with the NRCS. And so people are curious about it.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I bet that'll even grow, just as a lot of farmers retire from the baby boomer generation. And so there'll be new people coming in and implementing new practices, probably too. It'll be interesting to track that.
Wolfe: Jason, you remember right before we left Korey one day, we were talking about that, and they said there were a lot of people, young people coming back to farmers in their region, wanting to get involved in farming. And that's what they were seeing who's really interested in these new techniques, new slash old techniques, wanting to farm in a different way.
Thompson: Yeah, I seem to remember hearing a stat of like, the next 5 to 10 years, a very large percentage of these farms are going to turn over, you know, from the current generation to the next generation. So I think it will be very interesting to see if who acquires these farms. And if it is a younger generation with a desire and interest in trying out new techniques and trying a new path way forward. I guess, it will be interesting. I think that's cool. It's hopeful, it's inspiring, it's exciting to think about redesigning the system a little bit, or at least adding new features and tweaking the system.
Wolfe: We didn't really report on this, but I did have a farmer next talk to me about that. There's policy issues with succession. And I think it can be really hard depending on how you want to sell or pass down ownership of the land. And it sounds like – I can't speak in a very educated way about it – but it sounds like it can be a massive challenge and not necessarily advantageous to either member of the family. I don't know if there's a way to do it, you know, quote unquote, right? But so that it's a win win for everyone. I think it's really hard and may be potentially one of the largest challenges facing family farms of this kind is how that transition happens.
Torgerson: Absolutely. MSU Extension has a really helpful workbook that families can go through, and my family did it my sisters, and I filled it out, and my parents filled it out. And then you basically answer questions of like, what is the future that you want of the farm, and then we came together and talked through all of our answers. And like, one thing that I think will play a role too is like whether if the farmers keeping the land and deciding to lease it out, if they're going to do like a cash lease or a crop share, because if they do a crop share lease, then they have like, they're buying some of the inputs, and they're kind of having a bit more of a say in what happens to that land that they're leasing out.
So I think that will be a really interesting story to tell to have, like, either these new farmers kind of like leasing and what that contract looks like. And yeah, I'm also really curious, like hearing of that farmer that you visited and how he sold his ranch. And it'd be really interesting to see whether people are either leasing or selling and also brings to mind just like if you're leasing and then people kind of move out of those areas, then the wealth isn't circulating within those communities as well – as much potentially as if someone is farming there and living there. There's a lot of a lot of considerations. I think that'll go into this next wave of farmers coming in.
Wolfe: I was curious about your neck of the woods after the first story, I had someone reach out to me from Northeastern Montana. And he was saying, hey, there's some really cool stuff going on out here. There's a lot of continuous cropping. It's the largest lentil planting region in the state. And I mean, I have never even been to Northeastern Montana and I would love to go. Yeah, are you are you seeing changes there? I know there's organic and regenerative farmers there as well. We really focused on the triangle, but we certainly talked to people elsewhere. There's a new emerging group in southeastern Montana, that's a regenerative group, farmer-led regenerative group. What are you seeing in your region? Is it sort of the same scattered progression in some farms are growing and changing? Some are staying the same?
Torgerson: Yeah, I'm, I'm so like, kind of limited by my family's farm that I know a bit about kind of like neighboring farmers. But like, I guess there's someone who's my age who came back to farm and he also works in the commodity market. So he kind of does both. He has two jobs that enable him to farm. And then like, my cousin is curious about cover cropping and has convinced my dad and uncle to experiment with peas. I think there are grazing practices that we've kind of always done, just like letting the cows out into the stubble field, that could be considered regenerative, and we didn't even probably know it, you know. And, yeah, I think some people have experimented with hemp, but then there was this kind of issue where they didn't have like a place to sell it. And I think that that is a big thing, too. For instance, like, our cattle were basically organic, and we had cows, but the issue is like hauling them really far away and going through like the process of becoming certified. And so I think, yeah, if the grain elevator is really far away to sell your organic wheat, that that can be a barrier to entry. But I'm really curious after, like studying your series more to see like, what regenerative stories are happening in northeastern Montana, because I kind of think of like the area of the Golden Triangle as potentially like a little more innovative, but that's maybe because I haven't gotten curious enough about my larger kind of - the larger region of northeastern Montana too.
Wolfe: I think it's happening everywhere. And as one person who wasn't regenerative, but was trying other really cool experimental things in Big Sandy said to me, like, hey, everywhere you go, there's, you know, there's the people are pushing the edge, there's the people who are just behind them, and then there's the other guys who are watching and listening. And they're interested in it, but maybe they're not, you know, on the bleeding edge. And yeah, that's just humans, right?
Torgerson: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Well, if you want to go out to Northeastern Montana, I’m happy to host.
Wolfe: I really want to go to Northeastern Montana, for sure. Yeah, one thing that you said really made me think about one of the keynote speakers at the NRCS and conservation districts. They had an annual soil health symposium that we attended in Billings, and one of the keynote speakers, Alan Williams was talking about a sixth soil health principle that he would like to see added. And that is context.
And so you have to take into account not only the history of your land, and the management history, and how you're currently managing it, and the climate, and your pocketbook, but also your community and your immediate family members, and how far you have to haul the cows and what other resources you have at hand. So just like the science, and the climate, like this isn't some you can come in. It's the “Wizard and the Profit” story that I'm reading right now. There's the wizards and they think like – hey, with modern science, we can do amazing things for reducing starving, among human populations – and they have, but it's a stamp of here, you apply these, you know, NPK, and you do XYZ and outcomes, this high yield, which it has worked, but it, you know, is just limited in its timeline. And I think this much more nuanced. Look at not only the land, but also our relationship with it. And that every one of these farms is a business and a family and a community and an ecosystem. And it's so complex to look at all of those pieces, and it's so necessary. We're not just one giant industrial machine that produces food for food for the world.
Torgerson: Yeah. That's what I loved about Tom Watson's stakeholder-centered framework for the NRCS which is really exciting and like, it sounds like there's a lot of new employees that will be coming into NRCS to help, like, getting buy in from the community and like what works for your family farm and what works for your larger region, that that's really exciting to kind of see that type of buy in. So I'm curious, like, if you could share with me like a bit about your collaboration process, and what it's been like to, to really, really deeply in your bones, like, learn this information and, and dialogue with each other about it and go into the field together to do interviews and photographs.
Thompson: Yeah, it's been a wonderful process. It's definitely like one of the probably the longest singular project that I've kind of had going. And I think that's a really special thing to just hone in on one, one topic and just kind of dive deep into it. So we did a lot of driving around the state of Montana. So that was a lot of hours and drive time. And it was really fun just to dream and ask questions and be like, what does this mean? What does that mean? What's going to happen here? What's going to happen there? I definitely, you know, I think, walked away with just an understanding and appreciation, how important it is that, like nature and dirt, how much it changes us as people, you know. I think it's easy to think about, like, oh, we're going to change this system or that system. But it's, it's the dirt that I think changes people more. I think like that was something I noticed and observed with the farmers is just the intimacy that they had with the land. And so yeah, we got to talk about really fun stuff on the drives and meet some fascinating people. And Emily, just asking a lot of really fun questions and it was a really fun collaboration. It wasn't our first collaboration together. We've worked on some different projects in the past, whether that's been climbing or ski focused are other agriculture projects also. But yeah, it was it was a really cool project to be a part of with Emily, from my perspective.
Torgerson: Did Emily tell you like, these are the photographs that I'm thinking of? Or did you just learn, you know, just kind of know where to go with your camera?
Thompson: No, definitely. Emily would be like, oh, I really want a picture of this, or did you get a picture of this? That's really nice to have, from my perspective, just yeah, more ideas, or just making sure that I did get what I needed to get in terms of visual content. And yeah, just putting more ideas into the pot, I think is good.
Wolfe: Jason was like a superhero that came in with a cape. I mean, we planned the story together. Like I had some ideas, we batted it, we were sitting in my garden, I was planting garlic last October, or maybe it was November, but I was planting garlic, and Jason came over and hung out and we kind of come up with the big idea, and we agreed on it. And then I read a bunch of books and started interviewing people and got ideas of who to talk to and where to go, and you are sort of are triangulating and you have this big vague idea. And you triangulate in and figure out what's actually happening and who's actually working on things. And I was like six books deep and like 350 hours, then by the time like, we get in the car for a nine day reporting trip. And I was just like, I needed someone to talk to you about it. And Jason's just a phenomenal listener. And so like, I talked nonstop from Bozeman up to Power. And we stopped in Helena and met Montana Free Press, and the editor, Brad Tyre, and Kristen Tessman, who's their development director, amazing people, and I had worked with them and never met them in person. And that was really cool. And then this thing would happen. Every farm we'd go to where we meet with somebody for two hours, five hours, however long do I run a trucker tractor? And I'd be asking questions, non-stop, and like just fascinated, right, I'm down this rabbit hole. And like, they don't necessarily get to talk about the inner workings of their, of their daily life every day. I mean, that's my favorite place to be is like, asking someone questions and learning about their life. I just love that. And then we leave and get in the car. And I would just be like, wrecked and quiet and just sort of like sit there for five minutes and wait for Jason. And then every single time he would just say like, he'd have some just moment of insight where he'd pull out what had really just happened, and he would summarize it, and then I'd still and then I would in you know another rare moment of Emily silence I'd be quiet again and wait and then he would say something even better. And he could really see It was like taking a photo where you're like – this is what just happened. Like, this is what I just saw. And it was always a surprise to me. And it was really cool. And then we had so much fun just sort of batting around ideas and lots of conversations about the meaning of life.
Torgerson: Oh, wow, I kind of feel a connection Jason between you and like my dad maybe or just this farming reticence where he's, he's a kind of quiet guy, but sometimes just says the most profound things. And also just has like an eye for detail that I think both farmers and photographers have. They’re really intimate with their setting. What were some of the surprises? Can you recall Emily of what Jason kind of came up with, on those long quiet drives back home?
Wolfe: I don't have a good answer. I have no working memory. That's why I'm a writer, but there is no – I was only quiet for about 10 minutes.
Thompson: That's pretty accurate.
Wolfe: And to be clear, on that 9-10 day reporting trip, we did take two days off and go rock climbing over on the Rocky Mountain Front. It was like wild, dramatic, windy, it was like 95 degrees when we left Chester and Tiber. it was kind of getting cloudy. And then we went down and climbed in Black Leaf Canyon and we had all our clothes on. And it was really like, oh man, it's amazing, like the difference and you're not even that far into the mountains. It's just a cold place. And then the next day we climbed in Teton Canyon in our gloves and hats. It was like the first hot day of the summer but not up in the in the Rockies.
Torgerson: Well, I love how smoothly and poetically you've just coalesced the photos and articles and immense amount of I think, Emily, you told me once like eight or 900 hours or something of research that you've done. So what is that kind of after you've gathered all this information? What does it look like when you're editing photos? Or when you're structuring together the story in the piece? It kind of maddening to me. I don't know if it is when you're forcing yourself to sit down and work through it all. But what does that look like?
Wolfe: For story one I started writing that night in Black Leaf Canyon, like on my laptop in the back of Jason's camper. And I wrote the whole drive home while Jason drove and I was reading to him and going that's not right and editing it. And that story is sort of the best for that too, because I captured it when we were there and it was really fresh and you could feel it. Bob's story I wrote – and to be clear those 800-900 hours include the writing – okay, yeah, um, that story I wrote when I was in Wyoming, with my family rock climbing, and they would all go to bed. And in the camper, my husband and two kids, they're like six and two, they would go to bed at eight. And I would stay up until midnight or one in the tent, drafting that story. And there's this like, famous and Anne Lamott quote, “write the shitty first draft,” just get it out. Yeah. And it's just the process of getting it out. And I didn't get the whole thing out, but it gave me something to start with. And then I came home, it was basically the whole month of August, like writing from 9pm to 3am. Drafting, and then you have something to work with. And I had great support from the Solutions Journalism Network. They were a grant funder, and they're just really smart people on that team. And I got eyes on from Fara Warner, who was the lead of the cohort, the businesses and stainability cohort that I was in that kind of drove the background of this project. And she would just give me some like, comments, hey, what do you think about this? What about that, and those really helped me see where I needed to, like change the order of things and that story and how to consider things and frame things differently. Third story I like pre-wrote, I like did all the middle research, like the history, and all of that stuff. And then we just went up and got like, the intro narrative, and then we went and got the ending, the ending narrative was a surprise, I didn't know what the ending was going to be, and then I came across the Piikani Health Institute, and that big federal grant that they got, and. As soon as I found out about that and read Liz Carlisle’s book, I knew that had to be in the story.
Torgerson: That was a very appropriate ending. I love that quote, very hopeful. And Jason, what does that process look like for you after, after you've captured the photographs?
Thompson: I think our first trip, I did some editing on the road. Not a ton. But yeah, it was just kind of come back, dump all my cards, and archive all the images and just kind of go through a quick first edit round, and maybe a second edit just to keep the keep the images light, you know, I don't want to burden Brad and Montana Free Press with hundreds of the images. And I didn't want to burden Emily with hundreds of images that are all very similar. So just trying to show a diverse selection of images.
Wolfe: And Jason would send me some and we'd go through and say what about this, cut that one? And then I'd go through with Brad and do the same thing.
Thompson: Yeah, so that's kind of the third edit for me was I usually do a first two by myself, and then kind of send selects a group of selects to Emily and kind of cull those through also. And then she and Brad would go through the images. And they would kind of select the ones that would fit with the narrative.
Torgerson: I saw you had some of those photos in a calendar on your website. And I really want to see more of those images. Like they it'd be fun to to see a fuller series.
Wolfe: There's also like these moments where I was trying to figure out how to describe the balloons at the bank barbecue the previous night. And I was like, Oh my gosh, what color are the balloons? And I called Jason up like, did you take any pictures? He came in with his cape and had this picture of the balloons. And then also my favorite factchecking ever was calling the bank to ask about them. And yeah, I feel like the reporting is so fun, and writing is so painful. And getting to have images and like getting to have a person who understands the story and cares to hear about all of my research and can bounce ideas off, walk around with me. And then he takes these pictures and on the trip getting to like, look at the pictures was like such a treat. You know, I want to say candy, but it was more like a fabulous salad or something. And so much of this is cerebral stuff and to ground it in something that feels more real and more human – like it's just absolutely so amazing to have a partner like you, Jason.
Thompson: Thanks, Emily.
Torgerson: So freelancing, consulting and portfolio careers are all words that can be used to describe the work that all three of us are engaged in. So as you're doing all of this work on the Common Ground Series, you're also doing other work. So I'm wondering just like how you balanced it all like Emily, you said you were writing from 9pm to 3am, ais that a challenge to kind of pursue your journalistic efforts and also have like, clients and different things.
Wolfe: I've been a journalist for much longer than I've been a brand consultant, which is how I am retooling these skills to help you know, social and local impact companies. I'm starting to just say that I moonlight as a journalist. That's actually literally what it is. And, you know, it's like I was saying, oh, it's sort of like climbing or skiing like it's a passion thing, but people have been also emailing me and saying thank you for your service, like thank you for your public service. So I don't really know what it is, or how I can fit it into my life. I know that sometimes I get this, like incredible urge to learn about something, and I can think of no better way than to go launch myself into the middle of it. You know, I think when I was younger, I would just get a job in said field if I was really interested and bouncee between jobs and go – I’m a writer I need to try lots of different things. Yeah, so this is sort of my current expression of that.
Torgerson: Yeah. And how about for you, Jason? Did you have days where you're jumping back and forth between, like, photographing outdoor clients?
Thompson: Yeah, definitely. I think, for me, you know, I really haven't done any true journalism work. I guess, the projects I've worked on with Emily, have been kind of my journalism projects. And, and so they're really fun. And more, they're important to me, I think they're important topics. And so I think that brings joy for me to work on these types of agriculture journalism projects. But yeah, I definitely, you know, would have other photoshoots and whatnot throughout the year. And I've also been, upscaling in UX design and trying to integrate more website design into kind of supporting these other photographic passions that I do have, because I think it's my entry into agriculture started, probably, at least photographing agriculture started back in 2017, when I was just kind of trying to find something else to take photographs of in my home state and not have to travel as much. And so that's kind of how I discovered or found the idea to start shooting more agriculture work. And so yeah, I don't know, it's just a hodgepodge of jobs and trying to make it all work together as a freelancer, because it really is a lot of different gigs to try to make it all work.
Wolfe: I feel like that's like why it was so fun for us to drive around together to is that like, we're both the kind of people who like to find hidden connections, like the lateral thinking. And we both do so many different things. And you can borrow ideas from one field and use that framework in another and, and make these connections. And, I mean, I don't just see Jason as like a photographer, and a UX designer, like, I think that all of those things, augment each other and like, connect to each other. And, I mean, I'm not just like, I don't specifically try to separate my, like brand work and my journalism, but, you know, they I'm still one human being like, in terms of conflicts of interests that I'm like, very clear about keeping them separate. But, you know, I learned from one and it informs the other.
Torgerson: Yeah, we're all informed by the all the work that we do, and all the experiences that we have, no matter how seemingly disparate those projects could be. So when you think about the future of Montana agriculture and Montana's rural communities, what brings you hope, and what makes you despair?
Thompson: I think what brings me hope is just meeting so many really smart and energetic people around the state that really want to redesign the agriculture system to be very impactful for lots of different people and for the people at the core to be involved in that process. So I think that's really exciting. I also think like the young people, the younger voices, I think, are feeling more empowered to offer their opinions or to be running farms now to and to try these new ideas. And so I think that's pretty exciting. Yeah, so kind of excited about what the next generation does, and it's a process I think, too, like, no design is perfect.
Like no photograph is perfect. No story is perfect. You can edit these things for ever, but like Emily said, we just have to get something out there and try things and but I think the willingness to iterate upon an edit or designs is really important. And I think that's hopefully what this next generation is excited about doing is just trying out new things and iterating upon systems that are already in place, like we don't have to burn down systems, but we can improve and the system and find what works and what doesn't work.
And I think, despair, that was the second part of the question. Yeah, I fear that there'll be so much money involved in food in the agriculture system, that it'll just be harder to make these changes, and to try out new things. And that the pie just gets a little bit smaller. But yeah, just the amount of money that is involved, and the amount of corporations that are getting more involved. Like I mean, even the last three years, like how much more consolidated agriculture, just the land has become, and how much corporations are buying up more and more land, and consolidating the system? I'm kind of bummed about that. And then I think one thing that is more local, for me like, is just how we're pushing agriculture further away from city centers, and urban environments. And I think that's really sad, really sad that we're not like having the foresight to design communities where food is, if not the center, a very strong part of the central design of the cities and urban landscapes. I think it's sad that kids in New York think that carrots come from the grocery store.
But like I said, I do think that there's hope. And I think that there's hope in that it just that our Western society is like coming to a tipping point and a threshold of realizing the importance and value of food and agriculture and how that relates to obesity and mental health issues. And so I think agriculture has the power to fix a lot of societal issues that we're coming up against right now.
Torgerson: Yeah, absolutely. And Emily, what, what comes up for you?
Wolfe: I mean, I found what I wanted to find which was common ground. And I think we need to find a lot more of that. I think, what was really cool, and what I didn't focus on in the story was that there's this, you know, soil is this nexus, where there are people on the right and the left in the middle, all agreeing on the importance, and there are different ways to do it. And there has to be different ways to do it. But we can agree on that. And if we can agree on that, what else can we agree on? And if that's the pathway, and then we can find different trails off of it, amazing.
And I remember driving back from that first trip, the two of us, were so excited about how could we connect people, the people that we had met with the community that we live in, in Bozeman, and I watched Bozeman and Missoula and these cities drawing people from the coasts and how much money there is here. And I mean, I just read that the price of homes, the median price of homes in the greater Bozeman area in last year was over a million dollars. And while that comes with all of its own tragedies that also comes with that, I see, like potential for connection and growth. And these people want to be in Montana. And there's all these other amazing parts of Montana, and how can we, you know, build on this understanding of the importance of local and regional community and food systems and systems you know, all the things that come with a food system, the distribution and the growing and the food's cold storage, and the markets like how can we build strength in Montana here as a place? There are resources here, there are people who want to be here, there are people who are curious about it, there are all these amazing little towns, there's all this interest in food and health. Where are the connections there? And I feel like those aren't there yet. And I'm really interested in those. How might we all succeed together not by taking over the little towns of Montana with Bozemanites, you know, as we get booted out of Bozeman, which, that's another thing but how could it be a win win.
And I hate to end on this but we met these amazing people really smart really cool people who love what they do in the face of like, incredibly huge challenges, specifically climate and like the grasshoppers last year, and the lack of water, the drought and the wind and these massive pressures to, to be able to afford to grow food and to be a part of their communities and I think that that doesn't have to be the end of it. I think that my hope can also be not that Bozeman people, wealthy people from the coasts are going to come fly in and help. That's certainly not what I'm saying. I think this is building a system. This is finding like relationships and connections. But I, I think that they have to go hand in hand. Yeah, can we? What can we build here locally in Montana together on some shared values on some shared common ground?
Torgerson: Wow, thank you so much. I was journaling yesterday about what I want my third season to be about. And I was thinking how it both like regenerative ag and this kind of like, gentrification, rural gentrification and the cultural clashes that are kind of happening in hubs like Bozeman, and Missoula, and I feel like you just kind of helped me bridge those two ideas a little bit, I had
Wolfe: Yeah, I was thinking what kind of business we can build that would make those connections like, yeah, there's so many opportunities to build, to build things to connect rural and urban Montana, that could be positive and make us more resilient and make it less of an extractive thing. You know, you drive by Butte and think about what has happened in Montana in the past and the potential for that to happen again. And the only way for it not to happen is for us to choose for it not to be to happen and to be intentional, and to tell the stories, but also to build the relationships.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And just that you guys both living in Bozeman, like going out into the Golden Triangle. And doing this story is building that relationship. And like as someone originally from Northeastern Montana, it just made me feel like, hey, agriculture matters, like people in these small communities we matter. And so I just thank you for your reporting, and the incredible service that you've that you've done through this series. I'm excited to see what's next.
Wolfe: Thank you.
Thompson: Thanks, Megan.
Torgerson (narrating): Thanks again Emily and Jason for bringing us home, as the last guests of season two. A final thanks to my other Season Two: Sowing Possibility guests: Sarah Calhoun, Jake Bullinger, Miranda Moen, Ben Winchester, Ed Roberson, Benya Kraus, Ashley Hanson, Jeanie Alderson and Randi Lynn Tanglen. Special thanks also to Andrew Drinnan and Rob Upchurch for your work on this season.
My next episode, coming to you in August is a story from the Modern West’s Great Individualist series! And coming to you this fall is Reframing Rural’s third season.
I produced and co-edited today’s story on Duwamish Aboriginal Territory with recordings captured on Apsáalooke, Nez Perce, Lakota, Blackfeet, Salish, Shoshone, Northern Cheyenne and Duwamish lands. Reframing Rural’s theme music was composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. The lead audio editor for this episode was Rob Upchurch. Additional music and mixing was provided by Aaron Spieldenner at Hazy Bay Music. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana, Humanities Washington and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!