Efforts to protect agriculture throughout Missoula County will take a giant leap forward this year thanks to two funding awards, through the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program in the 2014 Farm Bill. Five Valleys applied for and received $734,000 of ALE funding to permanently protect two working ranches and improve the sustainability of the families’ agricultural businesses while ensuring that the land remains available for agricultural uses.
One of these properties is the Oxbow Cattle Company, located just south of Missoula. Owners Wendy and Bart Morris sell their beef in local grocery stores and have been expanding their business in recent years. Their ranch is located in lower Miller Creek, where development pressure is increasingly threatening agricultural soils. The Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) recognizes the Oxbow Cattle Company’s 168-acre operation as being comprised of 92% important farm soils, or soils worthy of public investment through the ALE program.
“The opportunity for us to preserve agricultural land right next to Missoula, which will in turn provide local food for the community, is only possible due to these funding sources,” said Wendy. “This program will allow us to expand and solidify our ranching operation, preserve this land from development, and provide open space for the deer, elk and all other wildlife in perpetuity. We feel very honored to have this opportunity.”
The awarded ALE funding will also assist with protecting a 569-acre ranch in the heart of the Potomac Valley, of which 94% is formally designated as important soils.
“Missoula County remains committed to voluntary agricultural land conservation close to our urban areas and in our rural communities and we believe in leveraging our effort and money toward that end,” said Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. "The Farm Bill’s ALE program has proven to be a great way to do that in the past and we’re excited to see momentum on this effort continue.”
Five Valleys will seek support from the City of Missoula’s and Missoula County’s open space bond funds to complement the awarded ALE funds, and will begin the formal application process later this summer. If successful, the total funds from the bond programs will contribute about 30% to the overall costs of the Missoula County projects. Farm Bill funding and landowner donations will provide 70% of costs. The 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire in 2018, and the City of Missoula’s portion of the 2006 open space bond is almost entirely spent.
Over the last few years, Five Valleys has secured over $1.2 million in ALE funding for projects across our service area, and specifically in the Flint Creek Valley near Philipsburg. There are currently three active ALE projects totaling 6,880 acres in this area.
“Farmers, ranchers, and the community at large all appreciate that agriculture remains a fundamental part of our economy and our way of life in western Montana,” said Five Valleys Executive Director, Grant Kier. “Farm Bill programs like ALE are a perfect fit for a community like ours where working on these issues locally and collaboratively makes a positive impact for our whole country.”
Header photo by Andrew Kemmis Photography