Farming with Family
Rusty, but functioning, antique tractors and a modern solar array frame Tom Tschida as he describes the unlikely way he became a rancher. “I’d been away working for a long time when [my parents] bought this place and started building it up. A few years ago I decided to quit my job and move back home,” Tom says of moving back to Montana to help his parents, Jerry and Carol Nash, run Nash Farms. After years of building a career as a photographer in Southern California, Tom found himself missing Montana. “I wanted to be around family. I wanted to be working with animals. I wanted to be playing in the dirt. So I came back to do all of that. It's been great.”
Tom holds his hand out and three curious black calves walk right up to the fence. One of the brave calves licks him, looking for a treat. A breeze whistles through the branches of a still-dormant cottonwood tree overhead, and ruffles fresh grass in the pasture -- the only patch of green in this landscape still brown from winter. The fresh growth is a testament to the care the Nashes take in tending to their soil. Behind the calves and the pasture, a yellow sandstone bluff glows in the late-March sun.
Nash Farms flows outward from those sandstone bluffs into the Clarks Fork Valley in Carbon County, Montana. While the farm doesn’t boast the vast acreage of some of the surrounding ranches, the available acreage is divided efficiently to raise a wide variety of crops and livestock.
“Cattle is our main operation,” Tom says, “but we also raise sheep and have an orchard and make some sorghum syrup and do a little bit of everything else.”
Tom’s mother, Carol, recounts how she and her husband started ranching. “When we retired from our last business, we thought, ‘we need a place where we can spread out and have some animals,’” she says. “You, know, have that outdoor life.” They started out with a few Navajo Churro sheep and then picked up a couple Dexter cattle, an Irish breed that does well on a smaller range. “We started growing things for ourselves to eat because we believe in good, healthy food. Of course, if you have two cows, pretty soon you have four and then you have eight. It got to the point where we could also sell to other people so they can also have good, healthy food.”
Having such a diverse range of products means a lot more work, even on a smaller farm. When Tom decided to move back to Montana, Jerry and Carol were happy for the help. It meant they could continue to grow and diversify without compromising the crops and livestock they had already established. “We had a foundation here to start a good healthy food movement,” Carol says.
What they didn’t have is a dedicated marketing staff. “I can certainly tout all of the good things about our product,” Carol says, “but it takes a lot of time and energy to go to farmers’ markets, to go to grocery stores, restaurants, whatever, to try to convince people to try our product. We really want to be out here working and trying new things and experimenting.”
The Nashes fall into the trap that most small operations fall into. Our current food system just isn’t set up for farmers to run independently. Establishing a consistent local market can be a huge challenge, even with Montana’s largest city just an hour down the road. When Tom talks about the challenges they face, the usual suspects like extreme weather fall behind just finding people to buy their food. “If you’re not involved with the standard commercial commodity kind of market, you don’t have outlets to sell,” says Tom.
“There’s a lot of competition out there, even as small as we are,” says Jerry Nash. Even the farm-to-fork markets are tight. “Our beef is competing with many other farms out there. There’s a lot of people that sell beef off the farm, so it’s a very competitive market.” While the competition between small farms is high, producing and selling on the micro-scale may still be a better bet for small, family producers than trying to make it in the big commodity markets. “If you can find a little niche that works for you and works for other people, it does great.”
The Nashes are optimistic that they’re at the beginning of a local food revolution. Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council is working on a food hub to serve the Billings area and invited Nash Farms on board as a producer. The food hub may be their gateway to a larger market of hospitals, restaurants and individuals. One of the ways that the food hub helps producers is by educating the local market on the health and economic benefits of buying local and supporting family farms. “That’s the challenge,” Carol says. People are starting to understand the health benefits of locally raised food, but the economics of buying from family farms are a critical selling point. “It benefits not only them, but also the whole community because all of the money goes back into your community.”
As programs like the food hub introduce people to the benefits of locally produced food, the expanding market will help Nash Farms thrive as the next generation is growing up on the farm.
Carol is looking toward the farm’s future. “We can pass it on to other generations because my son is here, now, and we have some young kids coming up,” she says. “And I know some of them are bound to be interested in keeping this going and, hopefully, we can continue to produce good food, not just for our family, but for other people.”