How 'boomerang kids' and 'brain gain' are shaping the future of rural Montana
Rural communities across Montana have long been affected by “brain drain,” where the younger generation moves away for college and a career and never moves back. But, that's not the whole story. MTPR's Ellis Juhlin spoke with some new and returning residents and found optimistic visions for what the future of rural Montana could look like.
Three-year-old Edie Hill is standing in a walk-in chicken coop that’s probably bigger than most people’s living room. After a short search, she finds two eggs in one of the hen boxes and carefully picks them up.
“I see one! There’s a cold one and a warm one. They look like little twins,” Edie Hill said.
Edie may not be aware of it, but she is a fifth-generation Montana farmer. This walk-in coop sits across from a barn that her great-great grandparents built when they homesteaded here in the early 1900s. Edie lives here with a herd of sheep, dozens of pigs, four cats and three dogs.
Her dad left the family farm in Power Montana as a young adult to pursue a degree in software development.
Josh Hill said he never thought he would come back. But here he is, standing in his family’s field with his youngest daughter Ruby in his arms.
“No, I had no intention of ever coming back. And when you grow up out here my parents never wanted me to come back either. There’s definitely the notion of get-big or get-out in farming. And just especially with the land base here when you look to try to grow in dryland farming you need the space to actually make it pencil,” Josh Hill said.
Josh is what people here refer to as a "boomerang kid." Although originally part of the rural brain drain, he came back. According to a recent statewide survey from Montana State University, there’s a growing number of people in their thirties and forties who are moving back to rural communities.
Tara Mastel leads the MSU Extension team that studies these dynamics. In 2021, Mastel and other researchers surveyed people that had moved to Montana in the last five years. They found that more than 60% of the people they surveyed chose rural areas for things like quality of life, access to the outdoors and to be part of a smaller community.
“Here’s the brain gain," Mastel says. "This is what people don’t talk about. This is people in their thirties and forties moving in to rural counties. And our studies showed why they’re moving in.”
For Josh Hill, when his dad died and his mom started talking about wanting to move closer to town, they weren’t sure what to do with the family farm. But Josh’s wife Ingrid grew up in Bozeman, dreaming of having a farm.
“When we started coming up and visiting Josh's parents and being up on the farm, I feel like a part of my brain was like, oh, this could be really fun,” Ingrid says.
Josh and Ingrid lived in Bozeman at the time and weren’t sure if running the family farm could be viable. Growing up, his parents ran livestock and also worked non-farm jobs to supplement their income.
The Hills didn’t want to sell the land, but they weren’t sure if they could afford to keep it going. After some research into sustainable farming and selling what they raised locally, they decided to give it a try.
“We were still living in Bozeman at the time, and my mom was here and so she would take care of the pigs during the week," Josh says. "And every weekend Ingrid and I would come up and do a project or push things forward, and we were like, well, we'll see if we like it just by doing that. If not, you know, we can get rid of the four pigs and that'll be the end of it.”
It worked. They finished 60 pigs last year and they’re on track for even more this year. And they still have Red, one of their original four pigs out grazing on the prairie.
“Well, it was Little Red. Now it's just Red because she's pretty big,” Ingrid says.
The Hills also raise sheep and a flock of chickens.
It’s hard work and they’re still figuring things out. Like how to manage their land amidst drought. The farm is a dryland operation, they don’t have water shares or irrigation, so all of the water they have is whatever falls from the sky. Last year, they were in extreme drought by May.
Standing in one of their fields, Ingrid said they have to be mindful about when they put their animals to pasture so they don’t damage already dry soils. They graze all their pigs and sheep on this land and supplement with hay as needed.
“And so we've been very cognizant of waiting until a lot of the greenery has come up," Ingrid says. "And now that it's starting to go to seed and kind of terminate on its own, now we're starting to move everyone onto the grass right now in July, just to have allowed for so much spring regrowth in hopes of trying to fortify our pastures a little bit.”
The Hills are able to have a small, profitable operation by focusing on local markets. They sell their meat to local restaurants, directly to consumers off their website and through collaborations with other local producers.
And Josh Hill still does software development work from home, in addition to farming, for the foreseeable future.
They hope to create something their kids may come back to one day too. And it seems like Edie’s already got a knack for it, pouring calcium supplements into the chicken feed, with a little help from her mom.
Let's make it here
One engineer turned grain farmer is re-imagining what can be done with what he grows on the family farm in the Golden Triangle.
Standing in a warehouse-like structure overlooking waving winter wheat fields, Ryan Pfeifle pulls out a dusty contraption that looks akin to a science fair project. It’s a keg barrel with a PVC pipe sticking out of the top. But it’s so much more than that.
This is the prototype of what became his malting drum. The final product, looming large behind the prototype, is a 9-foot tall drum that can turn 3,300 pounds of barley into 3,000 pounds of malt.
He attempts to explain the differences of barley and malt to a non-beer drinking public radio reporter.
"So this is barley, and this is malt. They don’t look much different. You're welcome to chew on some if you wish or not … Touch of sweetness. Very crisp. Chew on barley, it's not nearly as pleasant of an experience. It's much harder and no sweetness," Pfeifle explains.
Pfeifle grew the barley that made this grape-nut tasting malt last year, on the original 160-acre plot his great grandfather homesteaded in 1915. The farm’s grown a lot since then, but they still use that original parcel.
Pfeifle grew up in the town of Power, Montana and left home to go to college. He went on to work as an engineer, home brewing on the side using barley he got from his parents. But he never thought he’d turn it into a career.
A lot of the kids who grow up here leave, like Pfeifle did. Many of them don’t come back. Oftentimes, they find better economic opportunities in cities, where there are more options for work.
Rep. Ross Fitzgerald is also from Power and has served this region in the state Legislature since 2017. He says, "There’s only way that you can come into living in Power, unless you're commuting, is you’re coming back to the farm."
Fitzgerald explains working the land is a hard way to make a living especially as land is consolidated and farmers find themselves needing more land to make the numbers add up.
"And of course the farms are becoming less in number," he says. "But except for those operations that are small and doing the farm to market stuff — that's still a viable venture. But on the other hand, we're not seeing a lot of, I would say, adding on to farms, because there's still guys selling out."
Family farming has been changing for decades. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012 Montana had over 37,000 farms and 65 million acres of farmland. As of 2022, that number dropped to close 27,000 farms, and 58 million acres.
Today, many grain farmers in Montana’s Golden Triangle sell their harvest to beer manufacturers. Drive around the region and you’ll see MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch logos in fields and along the sides of towering grain silos.
Pfeifle wants to change things, not just for his family, but for his hometown.
"Let's not send our wheat and barley far away and turn it into bread and beer far away. Let's make it here," he says.
He sees localizing the supply chain as a way to revitalize family farms. Inspiration to come home and do things differently struck while he was living abroad. Sipping on a glass of Scotch, and thinking about how it was made.
"It just kind of clicked in my head. I mean, rural Montana, it's not that much different than rural Scotland. And don't tell the Scots this, but we grow better barley."
Looking out at his fields, Pfeifle sees Scotland. Not the sweeping green hillsides adorned with sheep, but the famous highway driven by thousands of Scotch-drinkers each year.
Down the road from his malt drum, Pfeifle is building a 4,500 square foot distillery and tasting room. It’ll be five years or so before the first batch of Montana single malt is ready, but he dreams of a day where tourists take the long way through the Golden Triangle to visit tasting rooms and distilleries like his.
"People go to Scotland just for that reason. Well, let's, uh, let's go do a whiskey tour and then go to Glacier Park. Yeah, that sounds like a good time to me."
Pfeifle was able to come back and farm here, and he’s grown the farm significantly since taking things over. But he says the get big or get out structure of farming today, is choking out towns like his.
"I enjoy getting bigger. And the challenge of that's fun, but it's not good for our communities and it's stressful."
He pulls out his phone and reads aloud a list of 14 last names.
"Every one of those is a family that I farm now, I farm their land. That sucks. I want all those families back. I want the school to be thriving. I want every 500 acres to have a family on it again."
Pfeifle sees his approach as a possible solution for rural Montana. While he’s glad to keep acreage in production, he doesn’t want his growth to come at the cost of his community. Keeping the production chain local could enable more families like his to live here on less land.
"For rural Montana to survive, too, we need more people," Pfeifle says. "And we need to find a way for people to live on 500 acres again and not need 5,000 acres. Obviously the quickest path to that is value-added agriculture."
Pfeifle believes more local production could be the key to rural towns’ survival. He hopes whiskey’s just the first step.
Safe, quiet and surrounded by nature
Tara Mastel, who we heard from earlier, leads MSU’s team studying rural communities. She and her team found that people originally from rural areas only make up about a third of the people moving to rural areas.
"We think, oh, the only people that would want to move to rural are people that have lived there before, have some connection. Well, this dispels that myth. In our study, 34% have lived there before. So 34% were returning to a place they had lived before. Two thirds never lived there before," Mastel says.
They surveyed rural communities across the state to find out why people are choosing these areas. And while every story is a little different, some common themes emerged.
According to Mastel’s research, a slower pace of life, access to the outdoors and safety all draw people to move to rural areas. People like Melody Karle.
"Both of us have lived in a variety of different sizes of places, and we have discovered that we don't enjoy living in the city. We don't feel like our quality of life is as good in the city," Karle says.
"Both of us have lived in a variety of different sizes of places, and we have discovered that we don't enjoy living in the city. We don't feel like our quality of life is as good in the city ... So, if the worst that we get here is hard winters, that's doable for us.
After living through several massive floods in Houston and a winter with frozen pipes as the state’s energy grid shut down, Melody and her husband Ian decided it was time for a change. And that change looked like Cut Bank, Montana.
"I've kind of had it up to my eyes in emergency management. So we were looking for a low-risk place. And both of us grew up in Pennsylvania and we got a lot of hard winters there. So, if the worst that we get here is hard winters, that's doable for us," Karle says.
The Karles picked Cut Bank for many of the reasons MSU’s research showed; they wanted to better enjoy the outdoors and they love living in a smaller community where they feel like they really know their neighbors.
Melody’s a data librarian, she now works for the state, but works from home and can live anywhere. And Ian is an engineer turned chocolatier.
"Can you make a go of it as a business, making, really, kind of a specialty product in rural Montana," Melody asks.
"It turns out people just love chocolate," Ian says.
"And people do love the artisan chocolate," Melody adds.
Ian had begun experimenting with making artisan chocolates in Houston, but decided to make it a full time gig once they moved to Cut Bank 2 years ago. He converted their garage into a facility where he now makes bean-to-bar chocolate that he sells in local markets from Great Falls to Whitefish.
"People are genuinely happy when they have chocolate," Melody says. "They buy the chocolate as a gift or they buy it for themselves. And it's just a nice thing to produce something that makes people happy."
"We were just so unhappy in Houston," Ian says. "If I can snap out of that funk, why not help some other people as well."
Ian says his years of experience in process-intensive engineering translates well into tempering chocolate. And Melody gets to be the taste-tester, trying out everything from chili chocolate to her new favorite flavor.
"The chai spice oat milk bar, and it is phenomenally good," She says. "And then I really like the new orange and cayenne. And it could be just that it's the newest and so it's still sort of novel, but I do like the spicy chocolates, all of them are pretty good."
The Karles say they don’t see themselves going anywhere, especially when they sit on their back porch to the sounds of silence, as opposed to the traffic they heard in Houston