'Agvocating' for Montana: Cali Christensen named 2015 New Century Farmer

A pair of farm houses sit on 8,000 sprawling acres, which folks often say "falls off the edge" of northeast Sweet Grass County. These homes, along with the black Angus cattle, horses, farm equipment and many acres of alfalfa, will someday belong to Cali Christensen, 22, of Big Timber. It's exactly this reason — in addition to her passion and love of agriculture — that she was recently only Montanan named to the 2015 New Century Farmers by the Future Farmers of America. 

A total of 50 young agriculturists, including Christensen, gathered for the New Century Farmer seminar July 18-23 in Des Moines, Iowa, where they learned about planning family succession, advocating for fellow agriculturists and discussed the future of the industry. Nearly 200 people applied for this prestigious agricultural conference, Christensen said.

Christensen, an agriculture education major at Montana State University, has been an active member of the family farm since "day one,” from swathing and general maintenance of the ranch to feeding and taking care of the cattle. 

"I've loved working with animals, and I love being outside, and I've always had a passion for agriculture. It's a lifestyle," she said. "I grew up with that instilled in me."

Christensen’s mom, Jodi Christensen, said she started her daughter off young.

“When she was 8 months old, she had to go swathing with me,” she said. 

Jodi would set up a daycare in the swather — a car seat, blanket and toys — and the two spent hours in there together — roughly 80 hours when Cali was little.

“It’s been giddy up and go,” Jodi said with a laugh. “She’s always loved to be a county girl.”

When Cali wasn't in the field helping her parents with the ranch, she devoted her time to 4-H and the National FFA organization in high school. From 2010 to 2011, she served as the secretary for the MSU FFA. Throughout her college career, Cali has been very involved with the collegiate stockgrowers and women's stockgrowers. The senior is currently serving as a MSU College of Agriculture ambassador and is an interning ambassador for the MSU Alumni Association.  

Every summer the young agriculturalist heads home and lends a hand on the ranch, so the conference seemed like a great opportunity.

While at the conference, Cali formed her own connections with fellow farmers and learned how to flow with the ever-changing industry. 

"Agriculture is a growing industry, and it's necessary for feeding people and clothing them. It's completely integrated into the everyday lives of every human in the world,” she said.

Cali added that everyone, including farmers like herself, are losing resources and need to produce more with less. Sustainability needs to start being a seriously considered practice throughout the world, she said.

Because farmers and ranchers often rely on themselves throughout the year, Cali said they are given a unique firsthand experience in sustainability — something that was further discussed at the conference. Agriculturalists, she said, need to teach people in the city how to live sustainably.

“Thinking on a global scale is where the world is going,” Cali said.

She added that it would not take much effort, besides a couple thousand dollars, to install an aquaculture pond in the backyard. Cali said her family practices sustainability everyday by feeding their cows the hay they grow every year.

“We grow the hay, we bale the hay, and then we feed it to our cows," she said.

And, for the most part, besides a trip to the IGA or Costco, the Christensen’s eat their own beef. This way of living not only ensures farmers of their quality of beef, but also the consumers. If farmers eat their own crops and meat, it must be good, Cali said.

And throwing in the sporadic weather Montanan's have come to expect every year, Cali said their family has had to adapt and change with it. 

"Agriculturists are learning to deal with extreme conditions," she said. 

The Christensen’s do not irrigate their land, but instead rely on precipitation and snowmelt. Cali said this year the ranch is lucky because of how much rainfall they received.

She added that the conference pushed her and her fellow agriculturalists to be outspoken for the industry in the years to come. 

“We talked a lot about consumer misconceptions, and we as farmers and ranchers, you know back in the '30s, they'd get up in the morning, they'd go milk their cows … and nowadays, my generation, we're going to have to go to work, plus we're going to have to be those advocates for this industry,” she said. 

If Cali decided to take over the family farm in the future, she will be the third female in three years out of a five-generation succession to do so, which, she said, is kind of unique. 

“Normally it’s a male takeover thing,” she added.

Cali’s takeover does not have a scheduled date in the future, and she is still unsure of where her life will lead when she graduates in roughly two years. As of now, she has a plan to study abroad in Norway at the College of Life Science in Oslo. There, Cali will learn about the genetics of breeding livestock as well as other agriculture-based classes.

Jodi is proud of her daughter and is excited about her future in the family industry.

“She's very accomplished. That's her, that's not us. She's chosen to be a detailed person and just do it,” Jodi said. “And I think she's gonna be able to do, she's good at it.”

Cali loves the farm and cannot see herself living and working anywhere else in her future.

”When you're raised in this kind of life, I don't know, it's almost like there isn't another option. A lot of people don't stay on the farm, they go and do another job or something,” she said. “We're a small breed. There's not a lot of agriculturalists in the world anymore."

Story and photo by Olivia Keith / Pioneer Staff Writer