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Freedom to Farm

Bitterroot ranchers and farmers strive to preserve their way of life

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In at least one semi-rural county in Pennsylvania, agriculture has become a nine-to-five job, the eight-hour workday dictated to local farmers through a county ordinance by urbanites who moved in and decided they didn’t want the noise, dust and bother that comes with agricultural tasks.

In formerly rural counties across the United States, similar ordinances and regulations are making it more difficult to make a living off the land. Hog operations have faced complaints of noises and smells. Farmers have come under fire for dust from plowing and smoke from stubble burning. Ranchers are criticized when they move cattle from pasture to pasture via county roads.

Faced with the rapidly expanding growth in Ravalli County and a proliferation of subdivisions in formerly agricultural areas, county farmers and ranchers gathered together last fall to write a “right-to-farm” policy that would protect their threatened lifestyle.

The nine-person committee, chaired by Hamilton rancher Bob Christ, spent several months talking to other ranchers, county officials, state and federal agencies, real estate brokers and businesspeople. The result of their work is a Right To Farm Policy for Ravalli County.

The proposed policy was sent to the Ravalli County Commissioners last week for review. A public hearing will follow that work. The policy may face more revision after public input, but sometime the commissioners should adopt this summer a right-to-farm policy.

The policy has been needed for some time, according to those who serve on the committee. According to Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office records, the number of calls concerning domestic dogs trespassing, threatening people and harassing livestock has increased to almost 2,000 last year. District court has seen an increase in lawsuits concerning water rights, boundary disputes and trespass to private property.

With the exception of government employment, agriculture is still Ravalli County’s leading industry, Christ says. “The way of life is changing. We need to find a way to preserve what we can of it in the face of these changes,” he adds. “There has to be a way for farmers and ranchers to retain their dignity and remain in their community.”

The strongest wording in the proposal states that landowners, residents and visitors “must be prepared to accept the activities, sights, sounds, and odors of Ravalli County’s agricultural operations.”

In equally plain language, the policy states all landowners have the obligation and responsibility to maintain fences and irrigation ditches, to keep pets under control and to control noxious weeds. It encourages all residents and landowners to learn about those responsibilities and to “act as good neighbors and citizens of the county.”

And the policy has some proposed innovations that may help relieve tension between farmers and ranchers and their new neighbors.

One proposal is to establish a dispute-resolution process that gives opposing parties an option short of filing a lawsuit in district court. A mediation board would include a trained mediator and one or more other members who are directly involved in agriculture to assist the mediator in an advisory role. The mediation would attempt to resolve problems on a one-on-one basis in an informal setting.

That proposal is now under review to see if it is possible under the authority of the county commissioners, Christ says. “Do the county commissioners have the authority to set up a mediation board?” Christ asks. “We certainly hope so. A lawsuit can break a farmer or rancher real fast.”

The committee hopes to become a permanent advisory board to the County Commission and have asked the commissioners to validate them as such. The proposal would have some associated costs. Most board members would be appointed or elected volunteers, but a trained mediator would have to be paid for his/her time. The board would probably require some secretarial assistance. Details and a possible budget would have to be worked out during the coming budget cycle.

The committee hopes to take a lead role in grizzly bear reintroduction, an area of “deep concern” to local stockgrowers, Christ says. They plan to ask the commissioners to recommend placing a Ravalli County citizen on the panel that will oversee bear reintroduction. “Ranchers and farmers will be the most impacted by the bear reintroduction,” Christ says. “We need to have a voice in it.”

The committee worked closely with the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to extend the whitetail deer-hunting season in the Bitterroot Valley river bottoms and is working to provide hunting access in river bottoms to lower whitetail deer numbers. “For everyone’s sake we need to get those herds into more manageable numbers,” Christ says. “This is a place where we can take a proactive role.”

Education will play a key role in any right-to-farm policy’s future success and that too may require some expenditure on the county’s part. The commissioners are encouraged to work with the county extension office and other county offices to educate the public about the right-to-farm policy.

With positive information about agriculture in the county there must also be facts about the hazards that abound in a rural setting, according to the policy. Farm equipment, ponds, irrigation ditches, electric outlets for pumps and electric fences, agricultural chemicals, farm dogs and livestock all present a degree of risk to children and adults who need to be aware of them.

The final policy will be distributed by the county sanitarian/planning office to anyone who requests a septic permit or plans a subdivision of land. In addition, the policy proposes that it be made available to all real estate agents and title companies. Those entities will be encouraged to provide the policy to anyone who purchases land in Ravalli County.

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