One hundred years ago, the Helena Valley was being promoted as, “the land of opportunity for real farmers” and in that Valley were 100,000 acres of farmland just outside the city.
Take a hike up Mount Helena today and look over the Valley. From the north to the south, it’s covered in development: single family homes, “ranchettes” of 10 to 20 acres, and subdivisions in their rigidly structured patterns. The few remaining farms and ranches are small compared to those in the rest of the state and either scattered among the subdivisions or snuggled up to Lake Helena, a tributary to the Missouri River.
In a metro area of approximately 78,000, the Valley’s suburban agriculture has a ready-built market as more and more consumers look for local suppliers of their food.
Double X Bar Ranch
A descendant of generations of Montana ranchers and farmers, Tim Dusenberry, owner and operator of Double X Bar Ranch, is the steward of nearly 600 acres of farmland where he raises 135 head of beef cattle, 1 boar, 8 sows, and 35 pigs ready to harvest, and uncounted laying hens just a few miles from the city limits of Helena.
Tim is a believer in regenerative agricultural practices and spends a lot of time working to restore the health of his soil through cover crops, elimination of farm chemicals including insecticides, reduction of tillage, and rotational grazing.
While his ranch is part of Helena Valley’s irrigation district, he is very aware that in the future he may not have access to water like he does now.
Raising healthy cattle means restoring and managing healthy soils. Tim’s days are spent moving cattle from paddock to paddock to allow them to graze on fresh pasture every day.
At the same time, the cows eat not just the choicest plants, they eat even those for which they have less preference. As a result, weed pressure is reduced while the most productive plants are encouraged to regrow between grazing.
Moving the cows also fertilizes the soil by distributing manure and urine more uniformly.
Direct to Consumer
Because Double X Bar sells direct-to-consumer, Tim serves customers who want to look their farmer in the eye and buy local food. They want that their meat is coming from someone they know, someone they trust.
The biggest challenge facing small beef cattle ranchers is working with small independent meat processors. Selling direct means that Tim doesn’t simply take his cattle to market in Billings where they are shipped off to large commercial meat processors with thousands of other cattle. He must travel for hours to a small private meat processor who simply can’t keep up with the demand and requires appointments months in advance.
While raising grass-fed, grass-finished beef takes 22 to 24 months to reach harvest weight – much longer than conventional beef – the result is more healthful and better tasting meat. Competing with conventional beef prices is hard, but by selling direct and managing cost, Tim’s prices are reasonable, and he can keep a larger percentage of the sale.
Supermarket meat prices keep going up, but the rancher still gets only about 20% of the retail sale. “I have a superior product, so I do ask a premium price,” says Tim, “but it’s not uncommon for me to sell my meat at a lower price than Costco for some products.”
Protecting What We Have
Double X Bar Ranch is a unique operation here in the Helena Valley and we need to preserve and protect what Tim Dusenberry and his family are doing. His is fighting an uphill battle against the meat oligopoly where four huge conglomerates deliver meat to Helena residents from as far away as Brazil.
Big Food and Big Ag promote cattle raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are fed diets that are unhealthy for them and treated with antibiotics necessary to keep them alive in those feedlots. And the meat is then processed in facilities that ignore human health and safety.
To protect our access to good food, we must find the means to preserve the few farmers and ranchers who exist in the Valley and to help more caring and creative operators like Tim build successful businesses to deliver good food to Helena.
Take a look at what’s on your plate; it’s time for a change. You can make that change happen.
Where you can buy Double X Bar Ranch meat and eggs
The Helena Fuller Street Farmers Market, Saturdays, May-October
The Capitol Square Famers Market, Tuesdays, through May-September
Order online for ranch pickup: http://doublexbar.com/
 The Helena Valley – Land of Opportunity for Real Farmers, The Helena Commercial Club, 1920