Lifelong Bitterroot Valley farmers and ranchers, Bob and Laurie Sutherlin, have spent decades establishing and growing Sutherlin Farms with a goal in mind: to keep their land in agriculture for generations to come.
Story provided courtesy of the Bitter Root Land Trust. Photos copyright Perry Backus, Ravalli Republic.
Bob was only a teenager when he first started buying cows, and until they could afford to buy their own, he and his wife Laurie rented ground to run their cattle and farm.
“When you grow up not having ground and have to put it together yourself, you take a different look at that land,” says Bob. “It’s something you worked for your whole life and wanted.”
Thanks to support and funding from sources including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Agricultural Land Easement program, the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond Program, and landowner donations, the Bitter Root Land Trust partnered with the Sutherlin family to conserve 377-acres of immensely productive and prime farmland in Ravalli County.
Located between Corvallis and Stevensville, Sutherlin Farms rests on some of the richest soil in Ravalli County. The farm is primarily used for irrigated crop production, including hay, alfalfa, grain and silage corn, all of which are grown to feed their cow/calf operation and herd of Red Angus that has seed stock all over the world.
“It takes good productive ground to raise enough hay to winter these cattle. You can’t just let it go away,” says Bob.
Nearly all of the farm – 99%, to be exact – is identified by NRCS as “agriculturally important soil.” In addition to prime farmland, the property’s open space provides valuable wildlife habitat as well as areas for wildlife movement, especially for locally important species such as elk, deer, sandhill crane, bald and golden eagle, and other raptors. With several other conservation easements close by and directly adjacent to the farm, the newly conserved Sutherlin Farms has added to the area’s preservation of open space near the Bitterroot River.
“At a time like this when land values are so high and the opportunity to convert that to a different use is there for all of our ag families, it makes the decision to do this that much more difficult from a financial standpoint,” says Gavin Ricklefs, Executive Director of the Bitter Root Land Trust. “But it also makes it that much more laudable and appreciated. It’s a challenging decision to limit development on your land permanently. There’s not more important ground in the valley for production.”
Thanks to support from organizations like NRCS, not only will the Sutherlins be able to pass the tradition of agriculture down to their son and three grandsons to work the land themselves one day, but they have guaranteed the preservation of one more section of valuable agricultural, wildlife habitat, and scenic open space in western Montana – forever.