Growth, education, and reflection accurately describe the experience I have had as part of this year’s ACE cohort of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. Although my family is certainly not new to agriculture, I am pretty darn new to Farm Bureau. Like many Montanans, my family has a long history of making a living on the land here in Big Sky country. I am lucky to be a part of the fifth generation of my family to call Flanagans Diamond J Ranch, ten miles west of Absarokee, MT, in Stillwater County, home. On the ranch, we take care of the land and the planet, focus on raising healthy crops and livestock, and do the best we can to think of the next generations, just as they did their best to think of us.

Advocate. Communicate. Educate. For agriculture. These words alone were all I needed to hear to convince me of the value of ACE. If you are like me, you cherish living in a rural community. Whether you have been engaged in agriculture for generations or not, we live where we live because we love where we live—those who have been here ‘forever’ and ‘newcomers’ alike. Farmers and ranchers have been a central part of Montana history, molding it into the state it is today. However, history has also shown us that times change. Our communities, our needs, our interests—these all change. What does remain true is that for vibrant rural communities to continue to flourish in Montana, and indeed in the West, all parts of the community must work together. Those of us in agriculture ought to be doing two things: 1) Teaching about the critical role of agriculture in a vibrant rural community and 2) learning from those of us not directly engaged in agriculture about creating healthy communities. To do this, we need to get better at these three tasks: advocacy, communication, and education.

Foundational to those three tasks, however, is listening. When I listen to neighbors, community leaders, educators, agriculturalists, and visitors in my own community, I keep hearing two things. 1) We have excellent people living and working in rural Montana. I hear this from others, and I see this myself. 2) We also have a major need for leadership and participation in our communities. In rural Montana, every person in the community must participate to make it all work. I hope that I can help through the local Farm Bureau and other community organizations to bring attention to this need. If we want to ensure a prosperous future for our towns and rural communities, we need to organize, get involved, and, most importantly, get others involved. I hope that I can serve my community to bring together both long-timers and newcomers, agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists alike to realize we have a common stake in making our communities the best they can be.

Beyond ensuring vibrant communities, we in agriculture face many challenges. One of the greatest is the conversation about sustainability and agriculture. This discussion is one we have all heard—in the media and at our dinner tables. Unfortunately, too often the conversation gets whittled down to “ag” vs. “non-ag”, “good” vs. “bad”, “right” vs. “wrong” with each side pitting the other side as evil. I think there are many important and valid points to consider regarding sustainability and agriculture. When we zoom out a bit, we realize that we all want the best for our communities. We want our land and our animals to be healthy. We want our skies and waters clear and clean. We want to ensure that we leave behind a better world for the next generation, yet not at the total expense of this generation. I hear ranchers say this and I hear environmentalists say this. ACE helps to refocus this conversation. We must communicate the ways agriculture has advanced over the decades. We must both advocate for better practices in our industries and educate about our best practices while ensuring both the well-being of those who do the work and those who consume our products. It comes back to listening. When we listen louder than we speak, we might just find that we have much common ground to work with. And that should be inspiring to everyone.

Speaking of ‘everyone,’ or at least everyone in Montana agriculture—This should be the task of all of us. The best advocate you have is you. The best person to talk about what you care about or what you do daily on your farm or ranch is you. And who can educate most accurately about the way you engage in agriculture? You. Farmers and ranchers need to take an active part in the conversation, both in our communities and on a national level. We also need to listen—listen to each other, to our neighbors, and to those who might even oppose us. This is true of every other group of people and of us in agriculture, too.

Finally, we, farmers and ranchers in Montana, are the ones who need to inform our elected officials of what matters in rural communities. In fact, more farmers and ranchers in elected positions would likely be positive for many Montanans and Americans. But when you start looking around, there aren’t very many of them. So, until we get a bunch of farmers and ranchers elected, let’s be the ones who step up to raise awareness and build coalitions around topics that impact our communities, our livelihoods, and our futures.

In fact, we must be the ones who do this.