Teton County, Montana | Factories and Farms | Tractor Country
In October, Ad Age began a yearlong look at the American Consumer. Working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation, we are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on consumer behavior. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see https://adage.com/consumer
The education of the city boy starts while I'm still in the process of recruiting the family for the "Factories and Farms/Tractor Country" county of Teton, Mont. I call the offices of Choteau Montana (pop. 1,684) county seat of Teton. "It's t￼t￼n" she corrects. I explain that I'm looking for a 50-something rancher with kids in college. "Well, I could only tell you about people within the city," she said.
"That's ok," I said. I'm flexible.
"Well, there wouldn't be any ranching in the city limits."
Oh. Right. That makes sense.
She hands me off to Paula in the county courthouse because she'd know people outside the city limits, too. I start my speech for Paula and she stops me. "Do you want ranchers or farmers, because we have a big farming community here, too."
Among the things they don't teach you in Marketing 101: The difference between farming and ranching (hint: moo), but if you want to understand the people who live in these counties, it helps to understand what they're facing each day. Because it doesn't matter if they're lawyers, taxidermists or county clerks, like Paula -- their livelihood and income revolve around ranching and farming. And, increasingly, mineral rights.
These are counties where big government isn't an abstract. If a rancher wants to sell his land to the state as part of its Land Bank Conservation, that means a windfall for him. The flip side is a loss of property tax revenue for the county -- a figure of just $10,000 is large enough to get all three county commissioners involved personally.
Teton has a population of just over 6,000 spread over 2,000 square miles. Yes, that 's a population density of three people per square mile which would put it more than 70,000 residents per mile behind New York County.
Paula thought of a handful of people who fit my profile and introduced me to Dale, a 45-year-old farmer. With a family of five, Dale, Frankie and their three daughters actually raise the average because of the size of their homestead. Like other counties in the Esri "Factories and Farms" segment, the population looks a lot like the America of the 1950s: mostly white, married families with children. This is not an area with much diversity. Incomes are low because of the heavy concentration of agriculture and manufacturing jobs, as well as an older than average population. In the Patchwork Nation, Teton is classified as "Tractor Country." Residents are four times as likely to work in agriculture as the nation as a whole. Not surprisingly, they're overwhelmingly Republican.
The population in counties like these doesn't waver much. In 1900, there were roughly 5,000 residents in Teton. It hit a peak around 1960 and has fluctuated between 6,000 and 6,500 since then. The county's slogan is "Where dinosaurs roamed." The area gets some tourism from visitors to Egg Mountain, an important archaeological site where the first dinosaur eggs were found.
Dale is the third of four generations to live on this farm. They grow mostly wheat. His older brother and sisters weren't interested in taking it over, so all 4,000 or acres fell to him. It sounds like a lot of land, but one family can only farm so much of it, so they have 2,500 acres of wheat and barley.
Now Dale's three daughters are growing up on the farm. Two are off at college in the big city of Helena. The third plans to take over the farm herself, but the high-school sophomore isn't ready yet. "We told her she's really got to get through school first and get a trade under her belt. Because the farm can't afford to support all of us right now," Frankie said.
Frankie and Dale don't expect their eldest daughter to move home when she graduates next spring. She'll try the job market but the teaching jobs are mostly in rural communities like theirs, and she'd like to be a little more social than that would allow. So she might wind up moving a little further away to neighboring Wyoming, or staying in school to get her master's. Those who don't want to stay on the farms have to look further afield for jobs.
People move into areas like this, too. Many do so for the outdoor recreation opportunities at Lewis and Clark National Forest and the beauty of the Rocky Mountain Front. That creates tension contributing to the one the thorny political issues in the area. Conservationists are butting heads with those who want to drill for oil, gas and other minerals. Again, this isn't a theoretical issue for the residents here. Sure, drilling means jobs, which isn't as huge of a deal here due to relatively low unemployment in areas like this. Areas like this tend neither to boom, nor bust. At its peak during the recession the jobless rate never crested 7% for Teton.
Mostly, drilling means income. For many, a farm produces only part its of income above ground with the actual crops or livestock. The rest comes from owning the rights to the minerals underneath the farm. Leasing those to the energy companies that actually do the drilling is often more lucrative than the farming business, itself. New drilling means new money for the residents. In Frankie and Dale's case, the gas under their property has an even more direct impact. "We have our own gas well. So we don't pay for heat or anything. Which is nice, because we couldn't afford to live in this house without it. So we can crank up the heat and let it go." It's a log home in an area that can see -40 degree temperatures in winter. Free heat is both a luxury and a necessity for them. They try to teach their daughters that it won't be that way for them when they leave the nest. They're going to have to get used to colder homes and higher bills.
Big Sky, but no big box
There's a tendency to assume this is all Walmart Stores country out here, but it's not. Open space defines the lifestyle here in every bit the same way as the city defines life for Michael in New York. There isn't much in the way of convenience, choice or "quick" errands. The Rocky Mountains are in their back yard, but the nearest big box is 80 miles away in Great Falls.
"We can go in a day and back. But it's usually an all-day thing. There'll be times when I haven't been to Great Falls for two or three months, and then depending on if we have doctor's appointments … because most all of our doctoring is in Great Falls. Then we end up going, you know, once or twice a month, depending on what's going on. During farming season, it's definitely a lot less. During harvest we're too busy to make it down. Most of the summer, it's pretty hard to get to town."
The routine shopping is therefore done at businesses that look a lot like their farm does -- family-owned for a time measured in generations, not fiscal quarters. Watching the circulars and clipping coupons has less value when there aren't choices in stores. Frankie shops at Rex's Market and buys a lot of the private-label brand, Western Family.There are some items she won't skimp on, like Del Monte corn, and some items she prefers to buy in bulk at Sam's Club when they can make it to Great Falls. She's been a dental hygienist for nearly 25 years and splits her time between two nearby towns. Rex's is in Choteau, so she does her shopping on the days she works there. There's an organic foods market in town, too.
Dale doesn't get into town much and therefore doesn't do much of the grocery shopping, but he's always searching the internet for good deals on farming equipment and supplies.
Dale spends his time in a tractor or combine. He's got satellite radio to keep him company, but says he could live without it if need be. Again, it's easy to make assumptions that areas like this are all Hannity, all the time. Statistically that 's probably not far off, but Dale's listening diet includes a healthy variety of talk radio. When Frankie is helping out during the busy seasons, she's the same way. NPR to Fox to CNN with Dr. Oz and Oprah radio thrown in. "You're sitting in there all day long, you need a little variety, so you just bounce around from this to that to."
For cellphone coverage there isn't much choice, either. Despite restrictive packages (no nationwide long-distance, high roaming fees) if you want reception on their farm you need Cellular One. If they travel -- like a recent trip to Seattle for some more doctoring -- they leave the phones at home and borrow one from their daughters who can use Verizon Communications and its nationwide plans. The savings on roaming fees make the exchange worth it.
The lack of choices can make brand preferences kind of a moot point. So can the economy. When asked about favorite labels, Frankie says, "That's a tough question, because I don't really look at the brands. I look at more the price. So, I don't know." Dale, wears Carhartts and Wranglers. He's a big online shopper, but Frankie doesn't like the computer so she relies on Dale for that , and she checks his Facebook page from time to time for new photos from friends and family. Dale's on it a couple of times a day if he's around.
The big news in the household takes a while to pry out of Frankie. She's trying to be modest, but once she starts talking about her new kitchen she gets a little animated. "I'd have to have a lot more money to get my dream kitchen. But it's pretty darn nice."
They have a rental property elsewhere in the state that provides a pretty steady income. That money was funneled into the loan payments for the kitchen, allowing them to pay it off in a couple of years. Hopefully. The remodel included removing a wall, pushing out the front of the house and putting a new deck on. It helps make things a little more livable in an older home, one which Dale has lived in all his life.
Now it's back to trying to put some money away for retirement and the family. With the economy the way it is , they haven't been able to really help the kids pay for college but they still hope to offer some assistance. "We'd like to try and help the kids with their student loans after they get out of school if we can."
But given the way things are going for millennials, they might want to think about where they'd put the girls if they, like so many in their generation, have to move back in.