Year of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism
Department or School/College
Jason Begay, Ray Fanning, Laurie Yung
University of Montana
Arts and Humanities
The transition from hunter-gatherers to a sedentary, agrarian based society was a pivotal point in history, fundamentally altering humanity’s trajectory. Early human’s domestication of plants and animals paved the way for modern civilization and drastically changed the way we lived and interacted. With agriculture, humans could invest more time into other activities besides procuring food while simultaneously being able to support increasingly large communities of people. Villages, city-states and, ultimately, states were formed – helping give rise to more complex social structures.
Until recently, agriculture has been the main economic backbone of every civilization. In 1970 in the United States, 95 percent of Americans lived a rural lifestyle. These days, not even 20 percent do and just one percent are farmers and ranchers. For those select few still committed to the industry, agriculture is often more than just a job or economic endeavor. It is a way of life and a purpose. Farmers and ranchers take pride in having a deep connection to an agricultural heritage marked by an intimate relationship with the land and animals.
For something seemingly so simple, agriculture – and food – has a nuanced role in our culture and society today. In some regions of the United States agriculture still serves as a cornerstone of the economy and way of life. However, into the 21st century, a variety of different issues threaten agriculture and those involved in the industry.
The theme of this portfolio is to examine different challenges and promises the agricultural sector faces today in the West – particularly looking at Montana and Idaho. The stories will look at social, economic and emotional aspects of agriculture during a time where the industry seems to be losing its place of prominence.
One story will explore two troubling trends plaguing Montana: aging farmers and the loss of productive farmland. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, in 2017, the average age of a farmer in Montana was 58 – just above the national average. Only eight percent of farmers in Montana are under the age of 35. Over half of all the ag producers in Montana are either close to retirement age or past it. That same report also found that Montana, in comparison to the rest of the country, suffered the third highest decline in farmland between 2012 and 2017– losing over 1.6 million acres.
Another story will look at a 2020 study published by Montana State University, which pertains to Montana farmers’ and ranchers’ perceptions of climate change and how that is impacting their mental health. With the world heating and chaotic weather patterns becoming the norm due to anthropocentric climate change, researchers have pointed to the negative impacts and challenges that this poses to agricultural productivity – a phenomenon that is directly connected to farmers’ and ranchers’ livelihoods. More than other realms, farmers and ranchers are more directly connected to the land, climate and weather. This story will examine the different ways that climate change is affecting farmers and ranchers by focusing on an often-overlooked aspect of the issue – how it affects this demographic’s mental health.
The third story for this portfolio will look at soil degradation, water scarcity and regenerative agriculture trends in the state of Idaho. Idaho is the top producer of potatoes in the country and, partly due to irrigation, is the third-largest water user in the nation as well. Agriculture has a major impact on Idaho’s economy, resources and people. Globally, an estimated 95% of the world’s food is grown in the uppermost layer of soil, called topsoil, which is created over a process that takes hundreds of years. However, due to conventional farming practices, about half of the earth’s topsoil has been wiped out in the last 150 years. At this rate, the planet is on track run out of necessary soil in just an estimated 60 years. Protecting and regenerating soil on cultivated farmland is of the utmost importance to help feed the world into the future. A system of farming principles and practices called regenerative agriculture, which is centered on rehabilitating and enhancing the entire ecosystem, could be crucial in helping to revitalize rural farming areas and reverse the rapid loss of topsoil.
Unger, Jordan J., "CHALLENGES AND PROMISES OF THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR IN THE WEST TODAY" (2022). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 11879.
© Copyright 2022 Jordan J. Unger