Protecting Missoula Valley ag one easement at a time
By Martin Kidston
Standing in the shade of a cottonwood tree with blue herons squawking in a nearby slough, Brad Isbell looked over his plot of land, the wheel lines glistening in the morning sun, and thought about what might have been.
Just six short years ago, Missoula County commissioners had approved the 75-acre plot for a 16-lot subdivision dubbed Blue Heron Estates. The property was platted and ready to go when Isbell made his purchase. But he wasn't looking to capitalize off selling lots and building homes. Rather, he'd make his way growing grasses and legumes to feed his growing herd of meat goats.
“You can make a lot more money on building houses here and raising houses than you can raising grass, but once you put the houses there, that's all you've got,” Isbell said. “People have to eat. It just makes more sense to me that we build where it's more appropriate and stay off the soils.”
Isbell's burgeoning ranch sits below the upper clay benches of the Missoula Valley in greening pastures where the Clark Fork River once flowed. Down here amid the wetlands and cottonwood stands, the river's geological workings washed away the clay that constituted the bottom of Glacial Lake Missoula, depositing all that's needed to create productive soils.
What now lies under Isbell's boots is recognized by Missoula County as the second best soil classification available in the valley. It appears on maps as “prime farmland if irrigated,” though the ranking wasn't enough to stop the county from approving the controversial Blue Heron Estates subdivision back in 2010.
Isbell has since intervened by purchasing the land, and he wants it to stay in production; something he intends to pass down to his daughters Klara and Eva when they're older. He's working with the Five Valleys Land Trust to protect the acreage in perpetuity through a conservation easement.
“This is a great example of how voluntary conservation can protect agricultural land in this area, close to Missoula in a developable place,” said Sarah Richey, a conservation project manager with Five Valleys. “Seventy-five acres is big for this area when you look at all the little housing lots around here. To keep these big, efficient fields for producing is just a win.”
Five Valleys has recommended the property as a conservation easement. The proposal will play out over the course of this year and will need the eventual approval of Missoula County commissioners.
“We bought this as a farm and put the notion of a subdivision out,” said Isbell. “This is a nice sandy loam. You can grow anything in here. The neighbor grows awesome potatoes, carrots and unions, and you can't grow that on those upper clay benches.”
In a valley squeezed by the slow creep of urbanization, Isbell saw value in the land, and he's looking to consolidate his ranching operations to the valley. When he left St. Ignatius for lack of water and purchased the property in 2013, it was riddled with weeds and waiting for the backhoes and cement trucks.
Isbell, a former geophysicist, has spent the past two years getting the irrigation lines in order and controlling weeds; houndstongue in particular. The other weeds don't bother him. In fact, they're a welcome addition to the pasture blend.
“The goats love the weeds,” he said. “There's more nutritional value in the weeds than in anything else I've got out there. But the houndstongue destroys their livers so I can't graze them on houndstongue. It was pervasive. It was a houndstongue nightmare.”
With the weeds under control, Isbell is ready to plant a mixture of clover, alfalfa, bromes and legumes, the later representing 50 percent of the pasture mix. The legumes introduce nitrogen back into the soil and eliminate the need for fertilizer.
Today, the Gotland sheep are out of site, though a handful of goats blither in a nearby corral under the watch of three massive guard dogs. Later this year, Isbell will release his growing herd of goats, sheep and cows to the pasture to graze, though even that won't be as random as it could be.
“We'll bring in management intensive grazing, so it's not just opening it up and throwing animals on it, which was done before,” he said. “There's a lot of benefit in actually managing the grazing.”
The pasture mix suits a number of goals beyond boosting the soil's health and productivity. The goats like forbs and shrubs while the sheep like the grasses and forbs. The cattle just go for the grass. Isbell described the pasture as a regular salad buffet with something for everyone.
“I specify the number of animals that will go on there, for a specified amount of time, and they're moved on a regular basis,” he said. “They each prefer their own little thing. Throwing the goats out there, that'll take care of the weeds.”
As Isbell takes to the deeper shade and considers the benefits of placing a conservation easement on prime agricultural soils, he also considers the food supply, eating local, and the commercial business his family is working to build.
The frolicking goats are destined for the dinner table, and while Isbell battles the weeds, he's also working to grow the herd.
“We'll start cycling multiple kidding and lambing times throughout the year so we can stabilize the local market and supply it with goat and lamb,” Isbell said. “Locally, it's not a very common meat, although it's the most common meat in the world. Whatever doesn't go here we'll take to Billings. I can sell everything in Billings at the auction that we produce right now.”
While the family hasn't settled on a name for its pending brand of meat, Isbell is leaning toward Harvest Calling. He plans for 300 breeding goats, a number that will likely produce around 600 kids a year.
The stocking rate for his pastures stands at roughly one cow per acre, or six goats. He'll put 65 acres into production and work to continue his daughters' interest in agriculture.
“They've got their own dairy goats and their own lambs,” he said. “The learning curve here is steep, but they're faster learners than I am. It can be a challenge to make the numbers work, but it can be done. They can work if you're aware of them.”
If the conservation easement is approved, the land will stay in production long after Isbell is done with his goats and bromes, no matter how high property values rise in the valley.
For Richey, that brings a value of its own.
“Conservation work and permanent protection is one piece at a time,” Richey said. “It's how we've done our work for 40 years – one piece at a time. Now we can look at it and say we've protected almost 80,000 acres, and every single one of those was one piece at a time."
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org