MONTANA AGRARIAN COMMONS
Local Agrarian Commons Board
The Montana Agrarian Commons is organized and shall be operated exclusively for the purpose of holding title to property, collecting income therefrom, and turning the entire amount, less expenses to the AGRARIAN LAND TRUST within the meaning of Section 501(c)(25) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”). Agrarian Land Trust, the parent corporation of Montana Agrarian Commons, is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(a) and described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Code.
On this page:
- Founding Members, Vision & Priorities
- Montana Agriculture
- Montana's History of Extraction and Exploitation of People and Land
- Current Projects in Western Montana and the Hi-Line
- State and Regional Agricultural Snapshot
FOUNDING MEMBERS, VISION & PRIORITIES
The Montana Agrarian Commons was established by three organizational board members: Agrarian Trust, Trust Montana, and Vilicus Training Institute:
Agrarian Trust protects farmland for sustainable agriculture and preserves its affordability for new and disadvantaged farmers. The Trust buys farmland and accepts donations or charitable discounted sales of land, real estate, and property. The Trust transfers land and real estate to local Agrarian Commons organizations, allowing local stakeholder control of the various Commons to take priority.
Trust Montana works to ensure land is accessible and affordable from generation to generation. Trust Montana is a statewide nonprofit organization with a mission to promote community land trusts and hold land in trust to facilitate workforce housing, farmland affordability, and the preservation of vital community assets that keep rural and urban areas livable for Montanans of varied economic means. Holding land in trust and entering into long-term leases with farmers and ranchers who would otherwise not be able to access land, Trust Montana aims to increase regional food production and ensure more producers can operate without entering a never-ending cycle of debt accrual and repayment.
Vilicus Training Institute is a nonprofit agricultural organization with a mission to inspire significant increases in the scope and scale of organic and biodynamic land management across the Northern Great Plains and areas of similar climate. VTI cultivates new land stewards and circumstances supporting their prosperous stability. Supporting new land stewards to thrive will grow the capacity of the land, and improve the rural communities in which they live.
This collaborative establishment of a 501(c)25 Commons entity leverages each of the founding members’ resources and expertise to steward land and make it accessible to farmers and ranchers in Montana. This stewardship must include ensuring the land is permanently affordable for producers, and adequately preparing and supporting the producers on the land to ensure their success.
- Trust Montana is experienced in deploying legal mechanisms to preserve the affordability of land, housing, and other community assets;
- Vilicus Training Institute brings expertise in organic dryland crop farming, supporting new and beginning agarians, and experience in implementing a system of land stewardship in the Northern Great Plains;
- Agrarian Trust brings wide-ranging expertise from a national network of staff and board members. Agrarian Trust supports and leverages the work by providing a national platform, and bringing capital for land acquisition and stewardship.
The Montana Agrarian Commons will own and preserve agricultural land and associated agrarian assets in Montana for the purpose of making land accessible to people otherwise excluded from the real estate market. The Montana Agrarian Commons will hold land and convey 75-year lease tenure and equity interests to farmers and ranchers, as well as shares in ecological stewardship investments. The Montana Agrarian Commons aims to fill a specific niche: holding between 4-12 farm properties - prioritizing properties that are at risk of being taken out of production and those that could enable the launch of new land stewards. Ensuring arable land is made accessible to ecologically minded farmers and ranchers will support farm viability and local agrarian economies.
Ian McSweeney is the Executive Director of Agrarian Trust. Ian has participated in many farmland and food systems initiatives and has served as a consultant to a number of related organizations, locally, regionally, and nationally. He has served on zoning, conservation, planning, and agricultural Boards and Commissions, County Conservation Districts, Regional Planning Commissions, and a University Extension Coverts Program. He also directed the Russell Foundation. During his tenure, the Russell Foundation worked with 65 land conservation groups, 40 townships, and local, state, and federal partners to assist 60 farms, complete 28 lease and/or management agreements, and complete more than 100 farmland focused projects protecting over 12,000 acres and raising over $16,000,000, all aimed toward providing benefit to farmland, farmers, communities, and the local agrarian economy. Ian is deeply committed to bring about innovation to evolve farmland conservation to holistically address equitable, secure, and affordable ownership and tenure arrangements, farm viability, conservation, and community resilience to ensure regenerative, diversified food production that benefits soil, human, and community health.
Hermina Harold is Trust Montana’s Executive Director. Hermina earned her community land trust education from working at the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC), Montana’s longest-running community land trust organization, for ten years. During her time at NMCDC, she co-managed the development of the CLT’s commercial food hub building, establishing Burns Street Center’s neighborhood food programs. She also worked with home owners in the 47-unit CLT housing program.
Hermina advocates for the prioritization of the CLT tool in community housing policies with state government, local civic organizations, city and county planning offices and governing bodies. Hermina has forged partnerships that leverage the limited resources available to increase access to land for low-income people. This networking and collective action has increased the number of permanently affordable homes in Montana, modelling strategies to magnify the state’s limited subsidy dollars to endure beyond single projects.
Kristin King-Ries is Trust Montana’s Staff Attorney. Her experience includes working with the community land trust model to set up permanently affordable housing projects around the state, employing legal mechanisms for shared-equity ownership, and consulting on land use policy and farm finance. In February of 2019, Kristin co-organized the Montana Summit on Agricultural Finance, sponsored by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The summit focused on tools that can preserve access to agricultural lands for Montana family farmers. Kristin serves on the board of the Northwest Community Land Trust Coalition with CLT leaders from a five-state region.
Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree are first generation farmers, and founders of Vilicus Training Institute, as well as Vilicus Farms, a 10,000 acre organic, dryland crop farm that practices long cycle crop rotation that regenerates soils. Vilicus Farms has established extensive native pollinator habitat and hosted the only formal organic grain farming apprenticeship in the nation. Vilicus Training Institute was founded to create conditions that allow land stewards on the Northern Great Plains to thrive. This includes sharing risk more equitably between farmers and the supply chain, launching new agrarian enterprises, and supporting agricultural apprenticeship.
THE BIRTH OF A PARTNERSHIP
Trust Montana, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and Vilicus Farms came together to coordinate the Montana Summit on Farm Finance in February of 2019. Through the Summit planning process, Trust Montana became aware of Agrarian Trust and invited Ian McSweeney to present about the Commons model. The two organizations found that their missions aligned, and decided to move forward with a partnership based on the complementary aspects in their work. In July 2019, Trust Montana Staff Attorney Kristin King-Ries authored an article about the Summit in Shelterforce Magazine, Farm Finance Tools in Montana.
MONTANA AGRICULTURE(Back to the top)
Montana has just 6.8 people per square mile, with 60 million acres of farmland held in 27,048 farms. This farm and ranch land constitutes 62 percent of the state’s landscape. About 38 million acres are pasture and rangelands and 18 million acres are cropland, with less than 1% in organic agriculture. Rangeland typically includes native grasses and grass-like plants useful to wildlife and livestock for grazing. Some of Montana’s farmland is located in its southwestern counties, where the majority of the population lives and where development pressure is growing. The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary program that allows farmers and ranchers to place land in non-productive conservation use, typically through ten-year contracts. About 3.5 million acres are currently enrolled in the CRP in Montana.
The 2017 Census on Agriculture reported that over 17,000 Montana farmers and ranchers are 65 years old or older, which amounts to about 36% of Montana’s producers. With many producers reaching retirement age in the next few years, farmers and ranchers will either be looking to younger family members to take over, finding lessees for their land, or selling their land on the market. Montanans hoping to purchase any kind of real estate must compete with out-of-state buyers who earn higher wages. Further, and more specifically for agricultural land, the out-of-state buyers are now funded on a global level, as Montana is increasingly becoming a hotspot for vacation rental properties, high-end dude ranches, and private conservation efforts. All of these factors contribute to increasing land prices. The establishment of an Agrarian Commons in Montana creates a new option for farmers and ranchers who want to see their land stay in production but do not have a viable option for deeding the land to the next generation.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MT DEQ) reports that the state loses more than 34,000 acres of rangeland to development annually. Some rangeland is converted to pasture, but more than 13,000 acres a year is typically developed. It also found that local governments approved more than 14,500 new subdivisions during the past 10 years, leading to 1.1+ million acres of new development. The MT DEQ cites projections predicting that 200,000 more people will live in Montana within the next 20 years, with more than 100,000 additional homes built in western Montana by 2025. Trust Montana, as a founding member of the Montana Agrarian Commons, focuses on preserving land for a variety of vital community assets including housing, recognizing that healthy communities need to have accessible and affordable homes and farms. To balance the need for both housing and agricultural land in the state, Trust Montana prioritizes projects built on non-agricultural land, and supports municipal policies that incentivize dense development to lessen sprawl, which too often removes prime agricultural soils from production.
MONTANA’S HISTORY OF EXTRACTION AND EXPLOITATION OF BOTH PEOPLE AND LAND(Back to the top)
One should not talk about land access in the United States without talking about who inhabited the land before white settlers arrived. Before Montana was a state, the land was primarily inhabited and stewarded by indigenous peoples, including members of the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Salish, Sioux, Shoshoni, Cree, and Chippewa tribes. The land ownership structure that exists in Montana now has come about through generations of genocide and displacement of indigenous people, including Federal policies like the Homestead Acts and the Allotment Act. Access to land, or the lack thereof, makes a big difference to the health of individuals and families. The Commons recognizes the importance of the history of indigenous people in Montana.
The Commons aims to work with tribal governments and other local community leaders. We strive to avoid and address the injustices of the past, and to this end, will work to ensure farm projects are beneficial to all the surrounding communities.
Montana is part of a region with some of the most stunning landscapes in the world, but it is also a land of catastrophe. For decades, more than 20,000 abandoned mines across the state have leached arsenic, cadmium, sulfuric acid, and toxins into the land’s soils, rivers, and streams. In the early 1900s, organizing and strikes led by miners often resulted in violence and death at the hands of companies and state officials.
As documented in the award-winning Montana Public Radio podcast Richest Hill, Butte has been the epicenter of some of Montana’s worst environmental and economic injustices. One of the largest mines, and the site of a well-known massacre, was the Anaconda Copper Mine in Butte, from which 94,900 tons of copper were extracted before it closed in 1947. The Berkeley Pit, a massive open-pit mine, later overtook the old mine’s location and is the site of what has been described as a “poisoned lake” containing extremely acidic, heavy-metal laden water that often kills wildlife unfortunate enough to visit its shores. Containing 50 billion gallons of contaminated water, the pit has been classified as a Federal Superfund site since 1987.
Montana’s State Constitution is unique in that it provides that each Montanan has the right to a clean and healthy environment. The Commons will work to not only preserve farmland as farmland but will prioritize projects that further ecologically-based farming systems that sequester carbon and mitigate climate change impacts.
Although the Montana Agrarian Commons will be able to hold land in any region of the state, the current projects being considered for Commons land acquisition are in Western Montana and the Hi-Line (north-central) region of Montana.
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URBAN FRINGE - WESTERN AND SOUTHWESTERN MONTANA
The fast-growing Western Montana cities of Missoula, Kalispell, and Bozeman, with populations of approximately 75,000, 25,000, and 50,000, respectively, are burgeoning markets for local food. They are also surrounded by patches of municipally-recognized prime agricultural soils. As the popularity of these areas increases, the land values rise to levels most beginning farmers can’t afford, and battles have ensued that pit housing developers against farmland preservation groups.
While advocacy for farmland preservation policies continue, the Commons aims to be an alternative mitigation tool -- one that approaches the land affordability challenge as well as the preservation challenge via land ownership instead of policies or regulations. The Commons will strive to partner with local community groups to identify priority farm and ranch lands to bring into Commons ownership.
The Hi-Line region of North-Central Montana, with an eight-county population of just over 66,000 people, presents different challenges for producers than the Western and Southwestern regions. Dryland farming on the Hi-Line is more endangered by a shrinking population and lack of support for beginning farmers than by development pressures, which is one of the main reasons Vilicus Training Institute’s involvement in the Commons is so important. Despite the low population and other challenges of dryland farming in a relatively harsh environment, Montana produces more certified organic wheat than any other state, and ranks second in total organic grain and lentil production. Over the last two decades, Montana has increased its pulse crop production (field peas, beans, garbanzo beans, and lentils) from zero production in the 1980s; the state now ranks as the nation’s top producer of field peas and lentils, and the third largest producer of garbanzo beans. The combined value of these crops in 2013 exceeded $140 million. Montana's pulse harvest is now more valuable than its durum wheat production.
SNAPSHOT OF MONTANA AGRICULTURE(Back to the top)
Throughout Montana, the price of agricultural land is skyrocketing, giving rise to challenges in the rapidly growing population centers with resort economies as well as the stagnant economies of low population remote areas. Montana Agrarian Common’s mission is to provide permanent affordability for farmers and ranchers, and our organization is committed to addressing the range of challenges. The Agrarian Commons aims to providing land access to diverse groups of people, and to prioritize access, secure tenure, and equity building for beginning farmers and others who would otherwise not be able to access land for agriculture due to land prices, discrimination, and other socioeconomic barriers. The Montana Agrarian Commons is working with organizations, institutions, and governmental agencies in Montana to create opportunities for food focused regenerative agriculture and financial stewardship throughout the state.
Land Acknowledgement & Commitment
The Agrarian Commons of this region acknowledges that it is located on the ancestral, occupied, and, in many cases, unceded land of Indigenous people, including the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Little Shell Chippewa, Northern Cheyenne, Pend d'Oreille, Salish, and Sioux tribal nations. In acknowledging this legacy of genocide, theft, and continued indigenous sovereignty, we look forward to partnering with Montana tribal leaders on farmland preservation projects whenever possible.
Food Insecurity & Hunger
Approximately 1 in 9 Montanans are food insecure. Nearly 37,000 children live in food insecure homes in Montana. In addition, there are seven American Indian reservations in Montana. The USDA has classified almost all American Indian reservations as food deserts. This presents a unique disparity as the size of the food deserts on the American Indian reservations in Montana are much larger than other deserts in the nation.
Montana Farmland Facts
Amount of Farmland: 58,122,878 acres (62 percent of total land area)
Acres Farmed Organically: 266,048 acres
Total Number of Farms: 27,048
Number of Farm Operators/Producers: 47,236
- Average Age: 58
- Beginning farmers: 10,920
- Farmers of color: 2,315
- White farmers: 44,921
- Female farmers: 18,673
- Male farmers: 28,563
- American Indian or Alaskan Native farmers: 1,764
Farmland Loss: 22,200 acres (2012-2017)
Average Farm Real Estate Value: $915/acre
Farm Income: 50 percent of Montana farms earn less than $10,000 a year (2017, NASS)
Top Agricultural Products by Sales: Fruit, tree nuts, berries, vegetables, melons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cow's milk, cattle and calves, grains, oilseeds, dry beans, and dry peas
Resources on Montana Agriculture
- Montana Governor's Office, Office of Indian Affairs, Tribal Nations
- 2018 State Agriculture Overview - Montana
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, NRCS - Montana
- Land Values 2019 Summary, USDA
- American Farmland Trust, Farmland Info Center, Montana
- National Young Farmers Coalition Chapters
- Quivira Coalition - Montana
Crossroads Resource Center Reports on Montana
- Southwest Montana (7 counties, 2012). Partner: Headwaters RC&D. Data Summary.
- Western Montana (5 counties, 2011). Partners: Lake County Community Development Corporation, High Stakes Foundation, Alternative Energy Resources Organization, Nourish the Flathead, Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, New West. Data Summary.
- Eastern Montana (2011). Partners: Community GATE & Montana Farmers Union. Data Summary.
- Expanded Golden Triangle (11 counties, 2017). Partners: Montana Cooperative Development Center, Montana Farmers Union, Farmers Union International. Expanded Golden Triangle (Montana) Potential Community Foods Collaborative.
- Golden Triangle region (2011). Partner: Montana Farmers Union. Data Summary.
- Southeast of Golden Triangle region (2011). Partner: Montana Farmers Union. Data Summary.
State of Montana Reports
FOUNDING AGRICULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS & LAND TRUSTS
Building livable communities by preserving land and homes people can afford
Trust Montana is a statewide community land trust (CLT) working to build up a permanently affordable stock of agricultural properties, commercial spaces and quality homes for Montanans
Land Access for Next Generation Farmers
Agrarian Trust is building local Agrarian Commons to hold land in communities for:
- Ecological, restorative agriculture and community-building- Long-term lease tenure and equity interest to farmers and ranchers
- Stewardship and ecosystem investment
- Farm, ranch, and agrarian viability and local agrarian economies
Vilicus Training Institute works to inspire increases in advanced land stewardship practices at scale, in partnership with nature, while promoting the standing of professional farmers in society and cultivating the circumstances that enable long term prosperous stability for the next generation of farmer/stewards on the Northern Great Plains.
"When we see land as a community to which we belong we may begin to use it with love and respect… That Land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten." - Aldo Leopold, 1948
Local Agrarian Commons Documents
EVENTS & OPPORTUNITIES
Vilicus Training Institute's Apprenticeship Program
Vilicus Farms Apprentice opportunities are training and mentoring programs that immerses highly motivated young professionals in organic farm operation and management – a journey that culminates in a career as a highly skilled and valued farm team member or farm/enterprise manager at Vilicus Farms or on another operation. Launching as an independent farm owner/operator is also a possibility with additional curriculum and on-farm training.
Learn more on Vilicus Farms' website
- Shelterforce: Creative Ways to Finance Agriculture
- Nonprofit Quarterly: Preserving Farmland in Montana: 3 Rural Community Development Tools
- Missoula Current: Forever Affordable: Downtown Missoula Townhomes Hit the Real Estate Market
- Choteau Acantha: THE MONTANA GAP: Affordable Housing Needs to Grow in Montana
- High Country News: In Montana, Houses are Replacing Farmland
Vilicus Training Institute
- Ravalli Republic: Growing an organic farm from scratch: Vilicus Farms
- Civil Eats: Can an Investment Firm Help Increase U.S. Organic Farmland?
- Montana Public Radio: Showing Up With Your Heart: A Montana Couple Leaves White Collar Careers To Farm On The Great Plains
- Dave's Killer Bread Video: Meet Our Organic Farmers: Daily Life in Big Sky Country
- Montana Governor Steve Bullock at the 2014 Harvesting Clean Energy Conference
- Vilicus Farms Video
- Farm to (Really Big) Table, Food for Tomorrow Conference Video