1,808 Acre Camp Creek Land and Cattle Conserved with GVLT
Bozeman’s growth is on full display this summer. Around every new roundabout is a road, subdivision, or building that “I swear wasn’t there last week.” Meanwhile, just a stone’s-throw away, in the rolling dryland hills and dirt roads west of Four Corners, time is almost standing still. While quiet Camp Creek Road feels far from the bustle of Bozeman life, change still looms on the familiar Montana landscape, with a smattering of houses dotting the horizon.
If someone told these farming and ranching families 80 years ago that people would want to build houses on these hilltops, they would have laughed. Now, that threat of suburban sprawl is real. With development marching west from the Bozeman core, many farmers and ranchers in the Amsterdam and Churchill areas are taking the future of their properties into their own hands by partnering with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust on a conservation easement.
The Camp Creek Land and Cattle Company is the latest addition to an 8,500-acre block of conserved land in the Amsterdam/Churchill area, a region of strategic conservation focus for GVLT. The Sinnema’s 1,808-acre farm and ranch is directly adjacent to other GVLT conserved acres and within five miles of 19 other conserved properties. Brent Sinnema joins his neighbors in conserving the land, its scenic views, his family’s heritage, and the future of agriculture in the area. “We love working with families like the Sinnemas who care so deeply about their land and the future of farming and ranching in the valley. It was an honor to help them think about and plan for the future,” says Cole Herdman, GVLT Lands Program Manager.
High land prices are leaving many farmers and ranchers in the Gallatin Valley with a challenging choice: cash out to development or dig in and keep farming. For Brent Sinnema, keeping his property in agriculture wasn’t easy, but it felt right. The conservation easement with GVLT limits development on the property forever, which not only safeguards the opportunity for future generations to farm but also allows Brent to honor the generations of hard work that came before him. “They worked really hard to buy the land, to work the land, so I don’t feel it’s right that we would cash in and cover it with houses. I just don’t believe in that.”
Brent’s roots in the area run deep. He was raised just down the road on another parcel, also conserved with GVLT. His grandfather came to Montana at just 12 years old, when his family immigrated from the Netherlands to work for the Manhattan Malting Company. The New York-based company worked with Dutch farmers in Montana to grow malting barley for beer and relied on their expertise in irrigation systems to build an extensive web of canals and ditches that still service local farms today. During prohibition, demand for malting barley dropped, and the Manhattan Malting Company vanished from the Gallatin Valley, leaving a community of skilled farmers to fend for themselves. These industrious families weathered the depression on their homesteads and started diversifying their crops into peas (processed at the pea cannery in northeast Bozeman, now known as the Cannery District) and potatoes (Did you know the Gallatin Valley is a national leader in seed potato production?). Brent’s dad always loved beef cows, and they now run cattle on the ranch and lease summer pasture.
Brent and GVLT share an interest in educating the community about agriculture. The public rarely gets a window into an industry that not only produces our food but holds the keys to our open Montana landscape. When asked what he wanted the community to know about agriculture, Brent said it is regretful that farmers haven’t held up their end of the deal when it comes to education. This has led to misunderstandings and misinformation about their practices and way of life. He wants people to know that “land is more than the land to us. It’s our heritage that’s invested in it. We care. We care about the environment. We care about the land. We care about our end product.”
The industry is also evolving. Technology and new management practices are transforming the farming business, often in ways that are better for the environment. After properties are conserved, GVLT shares best practices and trends with our conservation easement landowners that benefit agricultural operations and enhance the conservation values of the land.
Agriculture is a fickle business. With costs constantly rising and commodity prices staying flat, producers are pinched in the middle with a smaller and smaller cushion in the off years. Brent remembers his dad selling bushels of winter wheat for $7. Today, a full generation later, they’re getting $8.50. To keep up with the rising cost of fertilizer, diesel, and seed, bushels should be selling closer to $15 – almost double the current rate. The margins are tight in an already unpredictable business. These margins are further tested in years with variable weather. As Brent says, “anytime you use the word ‘too’ with weather, it is bad for farmers.” The last two years have been too hot with too little water, making the choice to call it quits and cash out more appealing than ever.
For the Sinnemas, placing a conservation easement on the ranch was a way to keep the business moving forward. Many landowners are compensated for conservation easements, which transfer development rights to the land trust. Funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Gallatin County Open Lands Program has helped the Sinnema family reduce a debt load and create a cushion to withstand the years with too many ‘toos’ in the weather.
In a business and growing community where the future is unpredictable, Brent’s choice to conserve his land gave him a level of certainty. “I said to myself, ‘The only guy who can preserve this is me.’ Whether that is good or bad, we don’t have that crystal ball. But once there are houses on it, that’s it. When you go to Bozeman, they have better dirt than we do. It is all condos. You only grow one crop of whatever that is. Storage units, houses. One crop and it’s all done.”
Brent’s decision to conserve has set the stage for the future – his son is interested in continuing the farming and ranching operation. When asked about his hopes for the future of his ranch in 50 years, Brent’s answer was pretty simple: “I hope it’s still going. I hope that the grandsons are able to keep going. I’ve done what I felt was right for my spot in the world.”