Tanner Jorgensen raises durum, green peas, canola in northeast Montana, Prairie Star (May 2022)
Beyond “inherit it or marry it”: exploring how women engaged in sustainable agriculture access farmland, Rural Sociology, by Ryanne Pilgeram and Bryan Amos (2015)
Guests: Russ Torgerson, Tom Jorgensen, Tanner Jorgensen, Jandy Jorgensen, Laura Christoffersen, Terry Angvick, Lori Warden, Renny Torgerson
Host, creator, producer and principal editor: Megan Torgerson
Story editor: Mary Auld
Sound design, mixer and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner, Hazy Bay Music
Additional music by: Sean Dwyer
Reporting location: Dagmar, Montana (Assiniboine land)
PHOTO CREDIT FOR FEATURED EPISODE IMAGE OF TORGERSON FAMILY FARM SOUTH OF DAGMAR, MT:
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Megan Torgerson (narrating): You’ll find my farm where the blacktop ends. Where coulees snake across square mile sections of productive farmland and oil pools in pockets far beneath the ground. It’s a place of deep time, where moose roam and unwieldy weather rules.
Our homeplace sits on an island of crested wheatgrass, far from the continental divide or the even plains of the eastern Dakotas. Surrounded on all sides by fields of spring wheat, there’s two neat rows of 40 foot tall grain bins and a shop nearly as big as the house hemmed in by caraganas. From there, clusters of noncontiguous pasture and cropland fan out as far as 28 miles across the glaciated prairie. Their names are Mattingly’s, Martinson’s, Vernon’s, the Miller land. And hilly or hail-prone, their topography is as singular as the stories they hold. Like a sandy fence line from one of my earliest memories where I held too tight to barbwire in the spot where my grandpa Vic told me to stay and wait. My small hand bled while he crested a hill to help push some cattle during the fall roundup. Or Louie’s dam where we’d bring a broom to skate on the frozen reservoir under a glass clear and frigid blue sky. Some of my favorite times were bringing hot meals and lawn chairs to the field at harvest, the dust settling as I handed hard-earned Budweisers to my Dad and uncle, and witnessed joy spread across grandpa’s weatherworn face.
The farm, at once the work of parents, grandparents and great grandparents, and the dream of so many who came before, is itself like an old, immortal relative. It’s seen herds and pioneers come and go, and cutting edge equipment rust and turn old. It has, and it will, endure beyond the time of its current steward or their successors. But what happens in the transitional space between the farm’s present caretaker and the next? Who will step in and nurture the land, come flood or come drought? What happens to my dad and our family’s identity, when he’s not farming anymore? And what becomes of the community when, voluntarily or not, a farmer surrenders their plow. These are things my dad Russ Torgerson and farmers across Northeast Montana have been asking themselves. I can tell my dad has been thinking on it for quite some time.
Russ Torgerson: I’ve spent my whole life putting it together and I don’t want to dwindle it away. I want to give whoever an opportunity to carry it forward if they would want to.
Megan (narrating): The next generation, including 26-year-old farmer Tanner Jorgensen, are after a different set of answers, like how is he going to find and hire enough help to continue the farm when his parents retire, while upgrading exorbitantly expensive equipment.
Tanner Jorgensen: Where now there is absolutely no way one, or two or three people can do what we need to do. There's just not enough hours in the day. You could do it if you wanted to work 24 hours a day and even that might be a stretch.
It's just, it's changed so much. Everything costs more. You need more time into it. And to get the full benefit of the cost of equipment, you need to have that stuff running every day.
Megan (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today you’ll hear the story of my family’s journey planning for the future of our farm leading up to my dad’s retirement this fall. This is part one of a two-part episode on farm succession. Part two is the story of the Jorgensens, another farm family from Dagmar with a son who is stepping into his family’s operation raising spring wheat, barley, durum, pulse crops and oilseeds. We’ll also hear from a local lawyer, Laura Christoffersen and Terry Angvick, a farmer and agronomist from the area. They’ll contextualize farm succession within local history and culture, and the labor market.
Megan (narrating): I hunker down beside a lichen-spotted boulder in one of my family’s fields to block a bit of the sharp September wind that reddens my ears. I’m waiting for the mechanic hum of combines to grow louder, and for my dad to finish his pass in the field, so I can return to the heated relief of the combine cab. I made it home just in time for the final days of my dad’s last harvest, and before the autumn rains. We’re cutting spring wheat at a quarter of land that brushes up against North Dakota. We call it Vernon’s, after the farmer who sold to my grandpa and his brothers when Vernon packed up and headed West after the Dirty ‘30s.
It’s been over a century that my family’s made a living raising crops and livestock on the punishing, yet peaceful Western High Plains. Some of their shuttered homeplaces still stand, a reminder of days when fewer church pews sat empty and more families traveled the washboard roads into town. Soon there will be another farm house that’s vacant for most of the year. At the end of this season, my dad will cease being the operator of our farm. Then my parents will live out the majority of the year in the house in the City of Missoula (a 10 hour drive West of the farm) that they bought after they sold our cattle herd over 10 years ago.
My parents, three sisters and I have been discussing their transition into full retirement from farming and ranching for a few years now. It’s always been a given that we wouldn’t sell the land upon my parents’ retirement. The plan is to lease the pastures and cropland to my trusted cousin Jacob who’s been farming in Dagmar since his feet could reach the tractor pedals.
If you’re not versed in the old school, gendered landscape of large-scale crop production, you may be wondering why one of my siblings or I aren’t taking over management. Things are slowly changing, but per the cultural norm, we weren’t encouraged to farm the way young men in the area are. To be clear, my parents never said that my sisters or I couldn’t take over the farm. But for us, success was defined as going to college and getting a job with health insurance you didn’t have to pay for yourself. So after high school, my sisters and I left Eastern Montana.
Today, given my work sharing stories from the region, people sometimes ask if I ever think of moving back to Dagmar. It’s a fair question, and ever-eager to be helpful, my mind inevitably wanders to the thought that maybe I should have moved home so I could be doing more to directly help my family’s farm. Maybe I should have become a farmer. But I didn’t.
Like my family in agriculture and many entrepreneurial-minded rural folks, I did ultimately become self-employed and start my own business. But my Masters of Fine Arts doesn’t translate well to being a producer of commodity crops. Looking back, my love of animals and childhood dream of becoming a big animal vet, could have led me to continue our family’s cattle ranch. But I never felt comfortable operating the big, expensive equipment necessary for the seeding, harvesting and transporting of wheat and durum. And growing up farmers needed to do both, so that if cattle prices were low, you could fall back on the price of grain, and vice versa.
So now my parents are moving to Western Montana to be closer to us girls. Without the close proximity of having immediate family on the ground monitoring the weather, crops and wildlife, means we’ll all have a different relationship to the farm. When I go back to the farm, dad won’t be working in the field and mom won’t be running to town to pick up parts. We’ll no longer receive photos from mom of the farmyard, or updates on how much rain’s been falling or how the crops are coming up.
In Spring 2021, my parents and siblings met for hours over Zoom to talk about this future reality and to add structure to the planning of our farm’s succession. Making plans for the land’s future has been emotional and complex. Before our first meeting, we each completed a worksheet from Montana State University Extension that guided us through a series of questions about how we want the land to be managed and the future we hope for the farm when my siblings and I become joint-owners years down the line. My oldest sister Lori kicked off the first meeting with a big question: what should happen to my family’s land after my parents pass away? My dad Russ was the first to respond.
Lori: How important is it that the farm and ranch remain in your family's possession? So I think that's a good one to start with.
Russ: I think it's important. I mean, when Mom and I are gone, I guess it's up to you girls, what you want to do with everything. Once we’re gone, we’ve got the trust you know, so everything will go into the trust and you will have say, as long as you girls agree on things, to do what you want with it.
The main thing is, you got somebody that does a good job for you, or for us as long as we're alive and have something to say about it. I spent my whole life trying to put it together, you know, and mom and dad too. They worked their whole lives to pass it to us.
Megan (narrating): While we know what will happen to the farm in the immediate and foreseeable future – my cousin Jacob will lease and farm most of the land – there are still questions about the next generation’s potential future involvement in the farm. As an example, my dad discussed what it might look like if my sister Kathleen’s son Odin wanted to farm.
Russ: Let's say that one of the grandsons, whether it be Odin, or Ash or Finn, or maybe there'll be more grandchildren that want to farm. And so that would be… when we're gone, there'll be four of you girls. So then let's say it was Odin, just for example, that wanted to farm. So that would be Kathleen's share, see? So if he wanted to buy the other three out, somehow, you know, you could probably work that out between yourselves. You see what I'm saying? Or maybe, Megan and Andrew want to farm or someone? You know, who knows? You never know.
But at least if it's still all together. I spent my whole life putting it together. And I don't want to dwindle it away. I mean, I want to give whoever an opportunity to carry it forward, if they would want to.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): We exhausted a lot of scenarios over these Zoom calls. And while the likelihood of my husband Andrew and I – or my nephews who didn’t grow up in agriculture – taking over the operation is rather slim; it was still helpful to meet as a family and get on the same page about the transfer of management and to discuss future hypotheticals.
We don’t know what the distant future holds for our patch of Earth. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve spent more time in Eastern Montana over the last five years. And it’s the reason I’ve been documenting the last chapter of my dad’s tenure as a farmer: from the final flat bottom grain bin my dad swept out while coughing up dust particles that snuck in through his N95, to one of his last trips to the grain elevator.
Megan: Can you tell me about the grain elevator that we're hauling to?
Russ: Yes, it’s United Grain Corporation that operates it. They built it here a few years ago, 10 years ago or so. They have ports at Portland and Seattle, where the grain goes. They buy mostly spring wheat and winter wheat. They don't clean it in Culbertson. They don't have a cleaner there at the elevator. They ship it to the coast to be cleaned.
Megan: And then is it shipped to other countries from there?
Russ: Yeah, mostly to the Asian countries from the West Coast, right.
Megan (narrating): Today cash crop producers like my dad participate in a global economy, and they literally feed the world.
Existing within an international landscape means that what happens to farmers in Australia or Ukraine impacts commodity market futures here in the U.S. Sadly, if farmers abroad are suffering from severe drought or the horrors of foreign invasion, that generally means grain prices are up for American farmers. As I spoke about briefly in my last episode with farm advocate and attorney, Sarah Vogel, an increasingly volatile market that’s impacted by foreign politics and weather, means programs like federal crop insurance are critical to ensure farmers can make a profit in an industry where the cost of production often exceeds what producers can make from selling their grain at the elevator.
After the bins were clean and we were done hauling spring wheat to United Grain Corporation for the day, I wanted to know how my dad was feeling about his fast-approaching retirement. We found time for an interview in the quiet of our wood paneled basement where nearly thirty years before dad introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival on his Akai record player.
Megan: So my first question is, how did you know that it was time to retire?
Russ: Well, I've always planned on retiring when I reached the age of 70. And I've been looking forward to it for a few years now.
Megan: How old were you when you came up with the number 70?
Russ: Quite a while ago. Yeah, I've kind of thought about my Uncle Art when I pulled out the number 70 because I think he actually decided to quit when he was about 70, I guess. And that's a good social security number. I just thought that everything, all my machinery and land was paid for and it'd be a good chance to do it, before I had to buy newer equipment again. And you know, I thought I might as well enjoy the rest of my time with Renny and you girls and everybody.
Megan: So you know the saying that farmers never retire. So that's, that's obviously not true, I guess?
Russ: Yeah, right. Some people, they keep going. It depends upon their circumstances, maybe they've got a son or daughter that's going to take over the place, or another relative.
Megan: And when you knew that, what were kind of the steps that you took towards succession planning. So when did that begin? And what were the first questions that you asked yourself or meetings that you kind of had?
Russ: Well, my nephew, Jacob, he's going to be taking the reins. So he's been helping us for approximately 10-12 years already. So yeah, and we've always thought highly of him, and his family, his wife and his sons. And we just thought that he would be a good candidate to take over as he’s still part of the family, my nephew and everything.
Megan: Yeah that’s good I think we’re all happy that Jacob’s taking over.
Russ: Yeah, all you girls are quite happy about it. That’s good.
Megan: What have been some of the hardest things in your retirement?
Russ: Oh, it's just I don't know, a different way of thinking about it, I guess. Because you're always gearing up for the next year when you're farming. When you know you're going to farm the next year, you're kind of gearing up for your expenses. I always tried to prepay a lot of things, my fertilizer and fuel and chemicals, every year I tried to prepay. That helps on your taxes. Now this year I don’t have that, more of a tax burden.
Megan: Yeah, I didn't think about that. Right. So you're kind of like drafting lease agreements and having meetings with the accountant that you might not have had otherwise. And you’re not like having to plan for the next crop.
Russ: No, exactly, right.
Megan (narrating): This conversation with my dad made me curious about how other families plan for farm succession. When I was home in September, I talked to Laura Christoffersen, a lawyer based 40 miles south of my farm in Culbertson, Montana. She routinely helps families navigate succession. Laura also grew up on a farm and ranch in nearby Froid and married a farmer from the area.
I wanted to learn about the legal, financial and emotional factors she considers when helping families plan for the transfer of their farms and ranches. The succession of my farm inevitably came up, and given her 35 years of providing counsel, Laura gifted me a lot of great perspective on my family’s situation.
Megan: …but then I think about what kind of conversations we're gonna have to have to decide the future of the land.
Laura Christoffersen: And those are the questions that come in the next non-farming generation. Because likely, in my experience, you and your sisters, or the family that was raised on that particular farm will have very close ties to it and will not want to sell.
We are raised in northeastern Montana, I had my best friend talk to me last night, she said, you know, Laura, farmers, one don't like to pay taxes. And they love the dirt. And so everything is about what is the least tax I have to pay. And I want to maintain my dirt forever. I don't want to let go of my dirt. And I think us, as the children of farmers, myself and you included, we are raised with that belief that that dirt is somewhat sacred. And so it needs to stay with me, or with my family. And that's fine until you get to the next generation, which might be your children or my children who – mine were raised, but yours won't be raised directly on the farm – who say that's a million dollars cash. Why don't you give me a million dollars cash instead of letting me collect 20,000 a year in rental income? That's stupid. It's the dumbest investment ever. Right? Your financial advisor would say, well, why are you doing that?
Well, to me, it's the value of the dirt. It means something to me. And it'll mean something to you. And probably to your sisters. But will it to your children and your sister's children in the same way?
Megan (narrating): This rings true to me: that you can’t take the country out of the girl. And the belief in dirt as sacred, which speaks to the almost spiritual connection farmers and their families have to the land.
In a eulogy my mom wrote for my grandpa she shared this sentiment: “Vic had faith when he planted seeds of grain that there would be a crop which would provide for his family. At times that faith was tested when hail ruined a crop, no rain came or grasshoppers infested the fields. But as many farmers will say ‘ there is always next year, which shows their unending belief.’” Later in the eulogy she spoke about the last harvest Grandpa ever witnessed. That year a golden bumper crop sprang up from our sacred dirt. Maybe it was the land’s way of saying goodbye. “Did Vic realize he would soon be leaving this all behind,” my mom wrote. “But he was also rejoicing in knowing that his sons, Russ and Stu, and grandson Jacob – and he spoke of his great-grandsons too – would keep his farming dreams alive.”
For my family, farm succession is so much more than finalizing lease agreements and selling off equipment. It’s about keeping these farming dreams alive. Dreams that extend back to my grandfather’s grandfather, Christopher Torbjørnson who left his farm near Lustre, Norway in 1853 in hopes of carving out a better future for his family and future generations in America.
I asked Laura how meetings with lawyers and accountants enter into succession planning so families can keep these dreams alive.
Megan: So could you explain a little bit about how a family starts to do this type of planning? Like should they meet with an accountant first, or what kind of ducks should be in a row before they meet with a lawyer and think through the real nitty gritty planning?
Laura: I think it should start at the first moment when the child or nephew or whoever expresses an interest in coming back to farm. You know, at that point, I think both sides should sit down and really open the books and point out, what does this look like? What financially can we do? You know, if you are coming back to farm, do you have access to other land that you can bring into the operation so that you supplement? Or will you (who is coming back) take the place of a hired man that I've previously had to pay? How financially are we going to make that work? Because typically, what has supported one family won't support two. And so that planning needs to happen even years before the farm kid physically returns to the farm.
I see lots of families approach it differently. We have families who have a kid who comes back, but has a job at Ag Land or Pro Co-op. And they work that schedule, but help on the farm and sort of work their way into it while they have an off farm income. And then they start to acquire a little bit more supervision, more authority, they have more access to decision making, more land maybe of their own. They see opportunities and can pull that in.
I also see farms that are large enough that they bring back the kid and just say fine, we'll now split what we have in half and get going or, you know, incrementally move the child into the operation. So every family is different. It depends on their economic capabilities, it depends on the capabilities of the child who's coming home, or do they have the ability to find that other job? Do they have the education to do that? Does their significant other have the off farm income that will supplement them while they do that?
And those are all discussions that if we can have those before they come home are wonderful, but that very seldom happens. And those discussions should be happening, I mean, amongst themselves before they ever even talked to the lawyer or the accountant. But often what I find is they come in after the kid’s been home a while and say, “Okay, well, now we want to plan.”
Megan: Yeah, I wonder if it ever feels like you're a therapist or something or even accountants – to start addressing and asking those questions.
Laura: That's why lawyers are called “counselors,” because to be honest, a lot of times it's all approaching the topic and getting people to express what they really want. Oftentimes, I'll have people sitting here and I'll say, “Well, what do you think it should look like? What do you think it should look like today? What do you want it to look like in 10 years?”
Megan (narrating): Farming is much different than when my dad started farming for his dad and uncles, or when my parents bought their first piece of ground in 1984. And it’s continuing to change. I asked Terry Angvick about the state of farming in Northeast Montana today. Terry is a farmer, agronomist and former extension agent of Sheridan County for over 30 years who lives in Plentywood. He said a major challenge for the next generation of producers in the area is finding skilled workers.
Terry Angvick: I think we don't have the labor anymore. And as we said earlier, the average age farmer, you said was in the late high 50s. I would say probably in Sheridan County is probably in the low 60s, because we just have less younger people who are back farming to drop that average age. And so the biggest challenge in my mind is going to be labor as farms grow. Machinery has taken the place of labor. Machinery is a lot bigger, and it's a lot more efficient, gets more and more done in a day, that type of thing. And it also allows people my age to keep going, because we don't have to do some of the physical things that that our fathers and grandfathers used to have to do. We still have to do some of that, but not nearly as much as we did before.
I mentioned to you that a lot of farmers today now are starting to move towards the forieng labor, and it’s getting to be more and more all the time, so I can see that being a big future direction as long as they’re able to come, and as long as we can find someone who still will fit the bill. Meaning again I just don't want to just hire anyone to sit on these half-million dollar combines.
Megan (narrating): Combines really do coast half a million to three quarters of a million dollars. And the high cost of equipment is one reason it’s hard for young farmers to get started. On one of our family Zoom calls, my dad pointed out that without our farmland, his grandsons would have no chance of becoming farmers.
Russ: Because if they were to go out, they couldn't afford it, for one thing, you know, unless they win the lottery, or they went and invested in Bitcoin or whatever the hell it is, then they could probably do it.
Megan (narrating): Here’s my mom, Renny’s response.
Renny Torgerson: We're talking more about the machinery than anything, than the land? Because they've got the land.
Russ: Right, yeah. They could rent the land. Yeah, you're right, the machinery. It’s not getting any cheaper.
Megan (narrating): The National Young Farmers Coalition has found that access to land is the number one challenge that young farmers and ranchers face today. According to NASS, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Information, the average value of an acre of land in Montana has gone up 10.5% from 2021 to 2022. The average price per acre is now at $1,160. My dad says, it’s a sign of the times.
Ryanne Pilgeram, a rural sociologist you’ll hear from in a later episode this season, says if you’re a woman wishing to enter agriculture you often either have to “inherit it or marry it.” It seems that adage is also becoming true for men looking to start a career in agriculture.
Megan (narrating): While I have an inside look into the circumstances of my dad’s retirement without any children taking over, I was curious what succession planning looks like for a family with a child stepping into the operation. To explore this question, I toured the Jorgensen’s farm 17 miles north of my family’s homeplace after harvest this fall.
In the front of Jorgensen’s yard is a stone with a placard attached including the farm’s history. The first name listed is Johannes Olsen, the man who acquired the land through the Homestead Act in 1909. It names Melvin and Beatrice Jorgensen as the farm’s next stewards, followed by Tom and Jandy Jorgensen, the couple who currently run the farm. There is also a windmill and a large sign including the Jorgensen surname beside a sprig of wheat set off by stone pillars. Behind the sign are two pristine metal shops with cupolas on top, of matching beige and University of Montana maroon.
Tanner, the next in line for the Jorgensen farm, showed me around a few of their properties along with his mom, Jandy. Tanner is a broad and animated farmer of Danish-descent who is among the new wave of producers returning to the Great Plains to transition into their families’ multi-generational farms. Tanner is a fourth-generation Montana farmer on both sides and his jovial spirit matches the mythos of the “happy Danes from North Dagmar.” As the story goes, the Danes who settled in North Dagmar are “happy Danes,” while the Danes and Norskies from South Dagmar, where I’m from, are of the more serious ilk (which tracks how I remember my grandpa before old age wore smooth his rough edges).
Jandy, who grew up on a grain and sheep in farm in Westby (northeast of the Jorgensens’ farm), is bubbly and sharp. She seems to have passed down her good humor and wits to her son Tanner. Like her mother before her, Jandy knows how to drive trucks, tractors and combines. Growing up Jandy never thought she would marry a farmer. But she did. And when Tom’s dad Melvin retired from farming, she transitioned from teaching at the two-room school in Dagmar, that’s since closed, to step in as an operator on the farm.
Jandy and Tanner were excited to show me one of Tanner’s favorite spots near his parents homeplace where we could see all the way down to my farm, and east into North Dakota. We parked their pickup next to an empty house at the top of the hill.
Tanner: This was this is my great aunt's place.
Megan: Oh cool.
Tanner: So would have been Nelson's brothers. And Nelson's brother Martin married my grandpa's sister, Karen. It's Karen's so this is her place. I love this place because you can see all that.
Megan: Would you ever want to move here?
Tanner: Yeah, I’ve talked about it a lot. Because the house is livable, but it needs some work. The shingles are gone. It needs a lot of upgrades. But you can see the whole Lowell Valley here and you can see, I mean almost down to your guys’ place from here.
Megan: It’s a great vantage point.
Jandy Jorgensen: Oh yeah, the binoculars work wonders.
Tanner: This is where I spot deer. Opening morning I come up here and sit and I just glass everything. I bring my spotting scope, just look because you can see a lot from up here. There’s a lot of wildlife up here. We have Canadian hunters that come in and they stay here during hunting season and throughout the year, they’ll come stay on a weekend and stuff.
Jandy: When it’s not COVID.
Tanner: Yeah, when they can get across the border. But we’ve had moose up here, all sorts of critters. Last year, had a group of hunters come up, buddies from college, and the one guy brought his dad and they’re from Dylan. His dad has always wanted to come up here pheasant hunting. And he’s an over the road truck driver and he’s always wanted to come up here. And he had an absolute blast. I mean, he was sprinting up and down tree rows and just had a great time. It’s so much fun. I almost enjoy taking these guys out more than I actually do hunting. I enjoy the guiding part more. They just have a blast.
Megan (narrating): That fall morning we also enjoyed conversing at the Jorgenson’s kitchen table along with Jandy’s husband Tom. Inside, their farm house is as lovely as their yard. Everything appears to be in its right place, but it’s homey and inviting just like the Jorgensen family.
Tanner grew up in this house, but now lives 20 miles away in Plentywood, where he went to high school. With a population of close to 1,700 people, it’s by far the biggest town in Sheridan County, and the only one with a stop light. I went to school in Medicine Lake, population 244, and when I was in driver’s ed, we drove to Plentywood just for the experience of driving through that stop light.
In 2018, after earning a bachelor’s degree in ag business from Montana State University, Tanner returned to Northeast Montana to farm with his parents Tom and Jandy. Tom and Jandy run the farm together, with support from their hired hand, Myron Wagler. Tanner also leases out his own ground, but they farm their combined parcels together.
The Jorgensens have a lively dynamic. Jandy likes to joke that she’s just on the farm’s “entertainment committee,” keeping people’s spirits up. While she does lighten the mood, by doing things like sharing secret words of the day on the two-way radio, she’s also an important part of the operation. She runs the tractor during seeding and to pull the grain cart at harvest, and she prepares everyone’s lunches. Tom is warm and courteous and makes his kindness and dedication to farming immediately apparent. He illustrated this by describing a painting of an elephant above his desk.
Tom Jorgensen: I always like the story of how do you eat an elephant and the answer is one bite ate a time, that’s how you eat an elephant. That’s how I like to think of harvest or planting season. When you start and you just think, oh my god it’s just this huge job, and you think you’ll never get done, but you just do it one bite at a time, or one day at a time.
Megan (narrating): Together the Jorgensens make a mighty team. This year their collaborative efforts earned them a first place title in the Montana contingent of the National Wheat Yield Contest for their superior dryland spring wheat. During the bone-dry year of 2021, the Jorgensens placed second.
I was glad I caught them together before Jandy and Tom headed south for Arizona for the winter. It was fun to witness their banter and the family said they also enjoyed the opportunity to sit down and talk together about what it’s been like to bring their son into the operation and for Tanner to start transitioning into managing the farm.
Megan: So you all have been farming together for four seasons? Is that math right?
Tanner: Three full seasons.
Megan: O.k. What were the first years like when – I know you would have helped out before, but you were in high school, and you had your own ground – but what was it like when you all came together in the first years after college? Like what were some of the growing pains or experiences that you had in those first years together?
Jandy: Those years were trying, but they were enriching at the same time. I worried about Tanner's new ideas butting heads with Tom's not old ideas, but Tom's a little bit more experienced. But both of them have added to the dynamics of the farm. And it was not easy every day, but nothing really is. It was never the same every day either.
Megan (narrating): Tom agreed with his wife.
Tom: Yeah, the first few years, you have to adapt, you really do. He has different ideas than we do: some great ideas and some not so great ideas. But it's been getting much better. I mean, it really has, it's gotten a lot smoother. And I'd like to transition out of the farming, but I'm slowly doing it. And he's taking over land that we previously rented. And I'm getting to the age now where I could just sit back and I'll help him move from field to field, but he doesn't let me do that! He makes me work way too hard.
Tanner: Slave Driver over here.
Jandy: Do you think it's been more comfortable, as each year gets a little more comfortable for us?
Tom: There's no doubt about it. It's been much more comfortable. And he's taken on more of the responsibility and he's getting very good at it. I mean, he knows who to talk with, and he's got quite a network of people that he knows and visits with and questions for them, and they help him through things. And it's been good. It really has. He’s a wealth of resources for sure.
Jandy: Some days, we wake up crabby, and some days we don't.
Tanner: It's been interesting, let's put it that way. You've got the wisdom of what 40 - 50 years of farming, that you have to acknowledge and understand and respect. But at the same time, sorry, I'm going to put it this way, but you farm for 40 - 50 years, and well, it's been working, so why should you change it? And that's understandable. But there's a few things I'd like to try. But maybe we don't have the resources or the logistics to do it yet. Give it five years, we might be talking something different. But in five years, we're going to need more help and newer equipment. I mean, there's a lot of things that need to be updated, or added to or something like that in the next five years to really achieve those goals, I think.
But it gets a little interesting to say the very least. There's some days where I just have to go home and walk away. That's nice to have my own house. But it's always rewarding. I think we've done fairly well – that's maybe up for debate –there's a lot of days where we all want to rip each other's heads off. Harvest, definitely. Seeding, definitely. When you work 18 hours next to each other, you start losing your mind a little bit. Yeah, but it's still an ongoing process, not just the first few years. Because the more ground I'm taking on, then the less ground he's got. You know, it's just a different dynamic because he doesn’t want to work the 12 hour days. I don't blame him. We actually had this conversation on the way out this morning. Where sometimes I need people to work 12, 14, 16 hours.
Megan (narrating): There are drawbacks and benefits to each model of farm succession. The Jorgensens are working every day on the land together during the farming season. Tom and Tanner have different ideas and after spending so much time together things naturally get tense sometimes.
It’s different for my family who is geographically separated. Over the last few years, when I’m at the farm, which is usually for a few weeks to a month at a time, I’m often dipping in and out of the field. I’ll do my consulting work remotely in the basement. Sometimes I drive to other people’s farms or offices for a podcast interview. And I’m always trying to carve out as much time as I can to shadow my dad, help flag as we move combines between disconnected fields or step in wherever I’m most needed.
Not being part of the day to day operation of the farm may have been easier on my immediate family’s relationships with one another since we left home. But then again, I know from my childhood, ties can also be strengthened by time spent laboring, problem solving and overcoming challenges together.
Today though farmers are often looking toward a future where they need to work with people outside their family to manage their farms.
Megan: One thing that Jacob’s told me is that with my dad retiring, he's like “your dad is like two men at least.” So I'm sure replacing… or as your dad is transitioning out, that it'll be a lot of work to onboard new people. And even if they are experienced farmers, just orienting them to the land.
Tanner: As I was reading through the questions you had the other day, I was thinking about this when I was at home, and when dad started farming, I mean, you could do everything by yourself. I mean, you had grandpa and then after grandpa couldn't do it mom jumped in. So you could really make do with less people. Where now there is absolutely no way one, or two or three people can do what we need to do. There's just not enough hours in the day. You could do it if you wanted to work 24 hours a day and even that might be a stretch.
It's just, it's changed so much. Everything costs more. You need more time into it. And to get the full benefit of the cost of equipment, you need to have that stuff running every day.
Megan: So what do you want to do with a farm? Like, what is your pie in the sky vision for five years from now? What does that look like?
Tanner: You guys want to answer that first?
Jandy: Our pie is already in the sky.
Tanner: You know, people always say I'd like to expand the farm, I've said it 100 times, I'd like to expand it out another 1,000 acres. But I don't know if it's attainable sometimes. I don't know if that's what a guy ought to do. I'd rather make the acres we have the most productive that they can be, rather than getting more and more acres, because that’s just making more and more work.
I'd like to see our yields go up and our soil health improve. And I think we've done a great job of that over the last 10 years. But to me, there's always another step you can take to make it that much better, and make it that much more productive. Maybe not that much more profitable, but that much more productive and hope that the profitability comes with it.
Megan: So do you all have a shared vision? Or what are your hopes for your family's farm?
Jandy: This is my shared vision right now. Because we're working successfully together. This is what I envisioned it to be, say 10 years ago, or what I hoped it would be. And so far, so good. I come home at night, enriched. I'm tired, but it's just been very rewarding.
Both of these guys make me proud to be part of a successful operation. So I'm very fortunate to be part of that.
Tom: Yeah, our visions – I'm gonna gradually step out of it. But I'm sure the workload will be about the same as it is now. I got a feeling as long as I'm able, anyway.
Yeah, I agree with Tanner on what he's saying, to try and make our acres more profitable. Everybody wants to expand. I just don't know if that's the real answer. It gets to be a lot of headaches too. As you expand with hiring people, you get to be more of a manager of people, than a manager of the farm. And I just think he's got a better idea. I think we can make each acre more profitable. We'll be better off in the long run. Maybe better off for the whole community. Maybe more people can stay here and farm. Maybe everybody doesn't have to farm 20,000, 30,000 acres.
Megan (narrating): It’s true, there are getting to be family-owned farms in the area that are 20,000 and 30,000 acres. That’s the size of the cities of Missoula and Billings. But farms of that size often mean smaller populations.
I love hearing that the Jorgensens are more interested in improving their soil health and yields than going in that direction. Expansion has defined crop production since “get big or get out,” became the dominating approach during the Nixon administration. But 30,000 acre farms would have been unheard of when my dad or Tom were getting started. I don’t remember hearing about farms of that size until I started interviewing people for Reframing Rural in 2019.
As Tom alluded, bigger farms mean fewer people. Without people to show up for community events or enroll kids in school, is a reason why I, like many who grew up in the area, don’t live in Dagmar anymore. It was hard enough living there when I was the only girl in my class for three years.
I can imagine using our farm house as an artist retreat space for myself someday, or coming back to participate in branding, harvest or pheasant hunting, but I don’t think I could live there year round again. This made me curious what Tanner’s social life has been like as someone living in the area in their mid-20s.
Megan: Are there a lot of people that you went to high school with that have stayed in the area, that are continuing to farm?
Tanner: Well, let's see, I had 31 in my high school class. And of those 31, there was six, or seven of us that were farm kids. Not all lived on the farm, there was probably two or three of us that lived on the farm full time, but there was a few of us. And of those kids that were farm kids, there's two of us that are full time ag. There's a few that have a stake in the farm or ranch, but they've got a job on the side. There's very few of us that are full time farmers. So I’m not going to say it’s disheartening, but it's a little sad to see sometimes. And there's a lot of nice farms that didn't have anybody to come back.
Megan: And what does that do for your social life too like, do you have quite a lot of friends in Plentywood, or how is it to be a young person moving back and creating a community for yourself?
Tanner: It's quiet.
Unless you like going to the bar all the time, which I like to go a little bit, but in the summer I’m working. I don't have time, or I don't make time, I should say. And I don't really want to be associated with a quote unquote, bar crowd that's in there every night. That doesn't appeal to me. So the summer, after work is done, I go home and work on my computer. I call a lot of friends from college because we're all doing the same thing for the most part. A lot of us are doing the same kind of thing, and so we like to bounce ideas off each other and just shoot the breeze. But in the winter, I'm gone every other week, but I’ve got my bowling team. So that's the social event of the week right there. And they're all farm kids too, or they work for farmers or extension agents, stuff like that, agronomists. And then I think this year, we got a curling team. So you know, two social events a week. That's a lot. I don't know what I'm going to do with all my time used up like that.
It’s pretty quiet.
Megan: Looking towards the future of farming in this region, what makes you all excited? What are you really hopeful about? And I think Tanner's homecoming story is an example of hope.
Jandy: It's uncertain, for sure. But every year you have faith, that's what you're planting seeds of.
Tanner: I'm excited to see what the equipment does. Not the pricing by any means because it's outrageous! But the technology… who doesn’t like running new stuff?
Jandy: On the other hand, with the monitor that I have in my tractor, he can tell if I'm just shirking my responsibilities: “Hey, why didn't you turn that on, or why didn't you turn that button? You need to wait, why is your fertilizer not being put down?”
“Oh, I forgot.”
Tanner: I did that a few times.
Megan (narrating): I was especially curious to learn what made Tom hopeful about the future of farming in Northeast Montana, as someone in a similar position as my dad, but with a child to take over the farm.
Tom: Quite honestly, 10 years ago, I got to a point where I just wanted to keep doing the same things and just gradually go out of farming. And once Tanner came back that changed.
Megan (narrating): Hearing Tom say that his interest in farming was renewed when Tanner came home, made me sad that my dad never got to have that experience. Things would have been so different for my family if someone came back. We all love Missoula, where my parents will be soon, but we don’t have the same storied roots there.
While the Jorgensens are entering a new chapter with Tanner taking the reins, I am looking toward a future where for the first time, I won’t have an immediate family member who is farming. When I talked to my dad on the farm this fall, I wanted him to know how much his impending retirement has impacted me.
Megan: So earlier this year, I kind of felt like your retirement was like the death of a family member.
Russ: It’s okay, Megan. It's okay. Don't worry.
Megan: Sorry. I thought I wouldn't cry.
Russ: It's okay. It's okay. Don't worry.
Megan: And I’m thinking about it more cause I’m leaving now again, but it feels less heavy and I’m glad that I was able to come.
Russ: Yes. I'm glad you're here too, to take part in it and to feel it, you know. Don't feel like it's a death of the family. It's nothing like that. We're going to keep going. We’ll be back. You're welcome to come back all the time. Whenever you want. Yeah. It'll be fine, Megan. It’s okay.
Megan (narrating): While in the moment I found my dad’s words comforting, I’m still grieving the knowledge that when I go back home things won’t be the same without him farming. I remember the ghostly feeling of returning to the corrals when we sold the cows, and the weeds that took over in their place. The next time I’ll be in our farm yard, the air seeder won’t be there for me to scale for a closer look at the milky way. The semis won’t be in the yard any longer either and the big tractors will be gone. My dad is holding onto some equipment for when he visits the farm: some tools, the smaller tractor and four-wheelers. But the cast of monolithic machines that I’ve forever associated with our yard, will no longer be part of the scene. I think it will feel empty. And I fear that without my family in Dagmar, I might become untethered to the land, my heritage or the collaborative enterprise of the family farm.
I hope that at least being aware of the weight of this momentous change, will incentivize me to keep the connection going into the future. And for now, at least my family has a reason to get together and plan for something as precious as a farm. I’m thankful we have more to talk about than a beach vacation or a political race.
Farming has defined families like mine for generations. With fewer families farming than there once were across the rural west, and the prohibitive cost of land and equipment that makes it harder for young farmers starting out, I wonder if the culture at large will continue becoming more disconnected from our agrarian roots. I hope that doesn’t happen because with a growing global population, now, maybe more than ever, we need family farms. And no matter their size or scope, they need our support and understanding.
For both the new and retiring generations, farm succession brings up a lot of uncertainty. And whether the next generation has access to land or not, it is not easy for young farmers starting out. There are the challenges of transitioning and upsetting the status quo with new dreams and innovations. There’s the high cost of machinery and inputs from fertilizer to fuel, and a volatile market that’s impacted both by politics abroad and corporate consolidation at home. And then there’s the inexplicable pressure of keeping a business running that’s been in your family for over a century. A business that represents your culture, your identity and your personal value.
While I may not be among the few who are continuing the legacy of their family’s farms, I feel privileged to get to shine light on the importance of family farming, and to further a culture that is connected to the land and the people who commit their life to sustaining us.
My heartfelt gratitude for my family who is growing more comfortable with me sticking microphones in front of them, to Laura Christoffersen and Terry Angvick for sharing hours of your hard-earned wisdom – I’m sorry I didn’t have space to share more of it – and to the Jorgensens for graciously inviting me into your home so I could ask hard questions about farm succession.
Next month I’ll bring you an interview with award-winning, Butte-based journalist Kathleen McLaughlin who covers the growing unaffordability of Montana towns like Bozeman. This episode will be followed by a narrative story about rural gentrification in North Idaho in January.
I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Assiniboine lands. The story editor for this episode was Mary Auld from Missoula, MT. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer of Hazy Bay Music out of Seattle, WA. Aaron Spieldenner also provided mixing and sound design for this episode. Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters 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!