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Been Around a Long Time

Photo of DVD label with 3 old Beaverhead Conservation District photosIn memory of Art Christensen 1919-2011.

"Been Around a Long Time" features historical photos and discussion with veteran conservationists, Art Christensen and Byron Martinell, from the Beaverhead Conservation District. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, we remember the early days of the conservation movement and the importance of partnership to its success both then and now. We recall the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s and the hard work of conservation-minded Montana farmers and ranchers as they formed local conservation districts over the following decades. Voluntary conservation on private lands, supported by the local, state, and federal partnership, is still the most successful way to inspire stewardship in the hearts and minds of farmers and ranchers.

The production is currently available on DVD and can be requested by contacting publications. Be sure to include the title of the DVD and your mailing address with your request. A Transcript of the "Been Around a Long Time" Video can be read on this Web page.


Transcript of "Been Around a Long Time" Video

ART CHRISTENSEN:
I was born and raised there.

NARRATOR:
Art Christensen has been involved in agriculture in Montana his entire life. That’s 90 years and counting.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
My Dad raised sheep and cattle. And I actually, I say I herded sheep 2 years before I started grade school. That’s not really true. The sheep knew where they wanted to go. My Mom gave me a sandwich and I followed them where they wanted to go. When they’d come home, I’d follow them home. But the coyotes would have taken them all. One year we lost every one we had. I made ten cents a day for doing that. That's how I got so rich as I am.

INTERVIEWER:
That was a pretty good wage back then.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
Well it really was. My mother made 40 cents an hour when she went to town to clean houses, and she was really good at it. And my Dad got a dollar a day.

NARRATOR:
Art’s parents homesteaded the family ranch in 1915 in Beaverhead County Montana. Art was born 4 years later.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
I herded sheep; I even ran a moonshine still for a little while. I didn’t know it was wrong but - and then I had to taste that dang stuff and if you don't, you know, if he runs it too long you get fusel oil in it and then it messes the whole batch up. I finally said, "you know I don’t like that darn stuff and I’m never going to drink anymore of it." and I haven’t.

NARRATOR:
Art has seen and experienced the best years and the worst years first-hand.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
And I was born in 1919 so I tell people the only thing my folks raised that year was me.

NARRATOR:
For Montana farmers the year Art was born was a very bad year.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
And I was born in 1919 so I tell people the only thing my folks raised that year was me.

NARRATOR:
For Montana farmers the year Art was born was a very bad year.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
And in 1919 the whole bottom fell out of everything. And had no moisture all summer, and a terrible winter and all the ranchers went broke. Anyone that didn’t have a feed supply on hand just couldn’t go.

NARRATOR:
As far back as 1900 Montana farmers saw excellent crops, especially grain. 520 families moved into the East Bench in Beaverhead County during that time to take advantage of the abundant crop yields. But after the devastating year of 1919 things never quite recovered.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
Like I say, there was 500 families lived on that bench. And then as time went on it wasn’t quite as bad from the 20s to the 30s. Then in the 30s, the drought was terrible. And then in 1929 we had, on top of all that, we had the big stock market crash, the big depression. There were people on soup lines; nobody could get a job. My Dad could have sold his cows for $100 a head in 1928. In 1933 they took them at $12 a head, and the bank cleaned us out. We had nothing left. My mother had to go to town to work and my dad had a job herding sheep for $30 a month. So those were terrible times and then that dust bowl was more East of us, from the Dakotas clear to Texas. But we got hit here too. As a teenager, I think I was probably 14, I rode, just for the fun of it - it wasn’t fun - but just to see what was going on. I rode from my place almost to the Ruby River and there wasn’t a soul left there. That whole thing was gone. The wind, the fences, the tumble weeds blew up against the fences and then the dirt on top of that.

NARRATOR:
It wasn’t just the dust storms, the drought and the wind that forced people to leave it was the beginning of the great depression.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
And the bank owned everything. People just left the houses. There were empty houses everywhere.

NARRATOR:
Perhaps the early dry-farm years in Montana, from the late 1800s to 1919, were too good. Art says most early farmers didn’t really know a lot about farming.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
We thought we knew how to farm but we didn’t. I remember my dad had a book, Campbell’s book on dry farming, and what you did, and I’ve done it a lot, get a tandem disc, pulverize it and then take a harrow and pulverize it some more. That breaks up the capillary action so that the moisture can’t escape, and that’s true, but when the wind hits, the water hits and there goes your farm. And that’s exactly what happened. But we didn’t know how to farm, and secondly, we farmed with horses and didn’t have enough money to fatten them up with a little grass, so you really couldn’t get much done until late April or maybe May.

NARRATOR:
Art eventually developed his own farming history. In the early 30s, Art said he started in the horse business.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
We got a-hold of a stallion and bred those mares and we worked them on our place and then I took them up to the Grasshopper Valley and got a dollar a day for them, and I got, I think, a dollar and a half myself. And so I made enough money in about 6 weeks that I could go to Montana State University (MSU.) I took 500 bucks and I could do that. Anyway the bottom line is, we did that. And when I came home from the war, I went into the service in 1940, when I came home from the war my dad was crippled up, my mother was very sick, and I said I want to go back to college - I'd done two years – he said, "make up your mind." He said, "if you go to college I’m going to sell the ranch. If you want it you can have it." So I didn’t go to college and I took the ranch.

NARRATOR:
For five years Art “toughed it out,” as he put it, until he found a bride. He said he prepared for her arrival.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
I did fairly well for awhile but I brought her home to a house where when the wind blew the curtain stood straight out, and we had running water but you had to run a hundred yards to get it.

NARRATOR:
Christensen said he had the freedom, then, to try different plantings and livestock choices.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
I tried everything in the world. I had 23 types of grass. And I had 15 types of cattle and I had sheep that raised five lambs, six lambs – I did it all.

NARRATOR:
Some practices that were common then, today would be considered shocking.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
We bought the first sprayer. And Arnold Benson and I, we decide we're going to spray them cows. Every week we bring them in and spray them with DDT. He's on one side and I'm the other and we're just as wet as the cows. It killed him. He died about 5 years ago and I expect I will someday.

NARRATOR:
In 1934, just surviving on the farm could be a struggle.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
Well, we could always butcher a sheep or a cow. And then it got so bad, I think in 1934, that we didn’t get a kernel of wheat out of the ground. We could raise rye, winter rye, and we did that and we could take that rye into Wells Brothers which was at the end of Kentucky Avenue, they had a flour mill there, and then we’d make flour out of our rye – well we’d take in a thousand pounds and take home two or three hundred pounds of flour, so that’s how we got flour, and we could raise our potatoes and we had all other things.

NARRATOR:
He says that mill, located in Dillon, had one of the few public scales in the area and the mill would roll the grain for you. He said the mill used a steam engine with a big line shaft. In those dusty days dust was not the only threat for Montana farmers.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
Army worms – they wiped us out. Grasshoppers, gophers-all that went along with all that dust storm and everything. You talk about arsenic – as a little kid we’d go to town and get a whole truckload of arsenic-laced bran and I’d stand there and throw that stuff out right and left and kill the grasshoppers. They didn’t last 2 minutes. The next day they are back again. I don’t know why we did it. You didn’t have a plan, you’d just go out there and kill a few grasshoppers. And then the army worm, when he came to a fence post like this he didn’t go around it. He went right up over the top and down the other side. And they took everything.

NARRATOR:
Needless to say, neither the bank nor the Government was seen as farmer-friendly in the early 30s.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
I know the bank took over everything and I understand that they had everything from - they didn’t bother with a legal description - just took everything from Dillon to Carter Creek. I suppose that’s 20-thousand acres. You couldn’t winter a band of sheep on it. That’s another thing I never talked to you about. One of the programs - we had no feed for the livestock. The government paid the producers to bring their sheep in and they killed them and buried them. They pelted them - took the pelt off of it and buried the carcasses and people were starving everywhere.

NARRATOR:
Conservation efforts in the aftermath of the dust bowls were slowly moving to the forefront. There was the creation in the late 20s of the experimental stations and the creation in 1935 of the agency that eventually became NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Conservation District Supervisor for Beaverhead County, Byron Martinell, also shares historic family ties dating back to the 18-hundreds:

BYRON MARTINELL:
My Grandfather came into Montana supposedly, the same day it was admitted to the Union. And just to show you the difference in economics back then he got off the train at Kidd about 5 miles north of Dell and worked for a rancher down there – so that was ’89 and in ’93 he bought our place from a homesteader and then in ’98 he built the big house where my brother and his wife still live today. So yah, we’ve been around a long time, yah – We’re still trying to pay the mortgage.

NARRATOR:
Martinell says there are a number of what he called “Old timers” in Beaverhead County and he says it is those folks who took an early interest in conservation practices.

BYRON MARTINELL:
When my Dad got involved with the district we did quite a little of the heavy land leveling. Smails over at Alder, I think they leveled, like, 400 acres for us. And it was in border dikes and contour ditches. Just from a ranchers standpoint that’s kind of how we got involved in some of the practices and then since then, of course, there’s been all kinds of stock water pipelines and things like that on the grazing land, too – and that’s been really good practice.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
That’s a good one.

NARRATOR:
Both of these old timers agree conservation practices are needed and are beneficial for producers. The Beaverhead Conservation District was created in 1952.

BYRON MARTINELL:
One of the neat things about the conservation district is the fact it’s a grounds up, from the ground up, hands-on kind of thing rather than from the top down, so there’s local input into what goes on in your area rather than Congress saying, "this is how it’s going to be," you know.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
We had Earth Day here, you know that’s, oh, 30 years ago or something like that. They decided somebody from the conservation district ought to go up to the college. So I go up there like a sacrificial lamb. About 50 of them and one of me. And they was going to work me over. So they gave me a pretty good line and I said, well I’m supposed to get mad and fight back. But I said, you know what, I been spraying now; didn’t know what I was doing and I been putting on twice as much as I should have. On account of people like you, I finally learned what I should be doing and I’ve cut that way down and instead of fighting back I’m thanking you for showing me what had to be done. What the Hell could they do to me then? So I got out of that one pretty good.

But we did. We wasted chemicals. We didn’t know what we were doing. And we didn’t know what we were doing when we were farmers in those older days. That’s why you ask the question of, you know, what’s going to happen with these younger guys. They’re not going to make those mistakes. They’ll have that right down to a gnat’s eye with computers and experiments and all the things they’re doing and the knowledge that they’ve got. They have ten times the knowledge we had. We just knew how to get behind a horse and go down the furrow. That’s another thing. My dad and my uncle plowed that whole doggone countryside out there with a one, with 3 horses and one plow that’s 16 inches wide.

NARRATOR:
Art Christensen thinks today’s generation of farmers knows a lot more than did earlier generations about farming. He is optimistic about the future of the industry to which he’s devoted his entire life.

ART CHRISTENSEN:
The good producers will be miles ahead of what we were and with the new techniques and everything, fertilizers. And, you know, people talk about how great the American farmer is and he wouldn’t be anything without experimental stations, banks, chemical companies, tractors, automobiles, all the machinery that’s there. He’s just the head of the pyramid and all these people are underneath him and they make it possible for him to be there. And I think agriculture’s going to do nothing but improve and I think there are young people that are willing to take up the yoke and go. See, most of our people back when I’m talking about earlier had no education, they didn’t know a darn thing except get out there and shovel. With new techniques, new equipment, new varieties, you know what? We started out being soil conservation district and then we said, no wait a minute water’s awfully important, so we changed our names to soil and water – then they said well that’s not all, we got all these recreational things, then we went back to conservation districts – just plain conservation districts.

NARRATOR:
The lessons taught from the great dust storms and the trials and tribulations faced in the years since by Montana Producers will not be forgotten. Conservation will continue to play a significant role in Montana Agriculture. A recent Farm Bureau survey of young farmers and ranchers indicated more than two-thirds of the respondents believe balancing environmental and economic concerns is important to their operations. Nearly 60 percent of young producers say they use conservation tillage on their farms. Pioneers like Art Christensen blazed a path for on-the-ground conservation practices.