National Geographic : 2012 Jan
• Marlboro ads or the ski brochures. Its beauties are severe and subtle and horizontal, rather than soaring and picturesque. It's not for everybody. But the Hi-Line contains scenes, lives, and voices with dramatic force all their own. One of those voices belongs to Lloyd Kan- ning, a sturdy 76-year-old with a full head of white hair and pale blue eyes, who has been driving a tractor since the age of ten. "Farming," Kanning told me, as we sat in his living room in Shelby, "is like ghting a war." . " Yo u ' r e fighting the weather to start with." You wait for the right moment, you put your seed in the ground---but if your tractor and other crucial pieces of machinery are old, you're fighting to keep them functional. en diseases. en bugs. Defeat all those, get a good stand of wheat grown and turning amber in the fall, "and along comes a hailstorm and beats it to the ground." Or if the hail doesn't nd you, the wind does, whipping through your grain to cause "shell- ing" (kernels falling out of the heads) so bad you lose half your crop before you can cut it. But no, maybe it ripens ne, the hail and the wind spare you, the grasshoppers miss you, and you're ready to cut it---then comes a wet stretch of autumn days, sogging your harvest, forcing you to put damp wheat into the bin. Now you must aerate that bin and dry the grain, or at least keep it cool. "And then you've got to ght the price." If your wheat has low protein content, the buyer at the local elevator may discount you as much as a buck forty per bushel for every percentage point below scale. Say that high-protein wheat is selling at six dollars, and you're two points below; your crop might as well disappear. "It does sound like war," I said. "It is a war." But these terms of engagement weren't appar- ent at rst. Hopes ran high. A pamphlet issued in 1912 by the Great Northern Railway, titled "Montana Free Homestead Land," bragged that the state's climate was healthful, the winters "not severe because of the dry air," ha-ha, and the yields of winter wheat "phenomenal." Act now, urged the pamphlet. If you want a piece of this bounteous giveaway, it said, "you had better start for Montana at once." ose good early years and dreamy expec- tations lasted through 1916. en came a bad seven-year drought---not an extraordinary event, just a downward swing amid long-term cycles that the homestead promoters hadn't taken into account. The rains failed, and the formerly generous elds turned stingy. Lloyd Kanning remembers hearing of a wheat crop that his father planted in 1919. No rain fell that year, none, not to speak of, and the seed just lay unawakened in its rows. It sprouted in 1920, too late, adding insult to injury. Elsewhere across the Hi-Line, conditions were equally grim. People did what was necessary to survive the hard times, scraping together some income from other sources, or else they just up and disappeared. A young fellow from Minnesota named Henry Luken, who had homesteaded near Rud- yard, which was a blip on the line, saw his wheat crop fail completely during one of the drought years. at winter he le the place, taking his only movable assets---four horses---and found work at a coal mine in the Bears Paw Mountains, about 50 miles away. With his saved wages, Luken bought feed for the horses, seed for another crop, and a sum- mer's worth of supplies, then went back to his farm. Grasshoppers ate the second year's crop. He took his precious horses and returned to the coal mine for a second winter, worked hard again, saved, put all his wages once more into the farm. He also arranged a bank loan, for which his collateral was the horses. e third year, Luken grew a crop. He paid his debts and eventually bought more land---from other homesteaders, as they dried out and gave up--- It's a part of the state that never appears in the Marlboro ads or the ski brochures. Its beauties are severe and horizontal.