Montana is a rural state. Agriculture, mining, and the timber industry were among the founding trades of Montana and remain among its most important. Tourism is increasingly lucrative, and service industries like trucking and medical-treatment centers are major employers. Because it is so far from coastal markets or other significant population centers, it is unlikely that Montana will quickly become anything but a source of raw materials. Transport costs make industry unprofitable in so remote a state.
Montanans make strict differentiations between farms and ranches: Farms raise grain, and ranches raise livestock. To the purist, any amount of cultivation degrades a ranch to a farm. Even though most people think of Montana as primarily an agricultural state, less than 10 percent of the population makes a living from farming and ranching. Still, recent census figures indicate that the number of farms and ranches in Montana is increasing slightly (there are more than 15,000). Their average income has declined over the last decade, however. Beef cattle production is the most common form of ranching, with sheep production remaining a steady alternative. Spring and winter wheat are by far the most common crops, with barley a significant third. Along the Yellowstone River, corn, soybeans, and sugar beets grow in irrigated fields. In the Flathead Lake region, sweet cherry orchards augment the local tourist economy.
The state of Montana was born of prospecting and mining camps. However, the copper, silver, and gold that established the Montana economy are largely depleted. Traditional centers of mining, such as Butte and Anaconda, have fallen on hard times as the world market has moved elsewhere to find cheaper, more easily mined minerals. But it’s not that Montana has given up mining; copper, silver, and gold are still produced, but with modern techniques that don’t demand an entire city’s workforce.
Montana remains rich in other mineral wealth: from the unpronounceable molybdenum to the sublime Yogo sapphire to ordinary talcum powder. Thirty-foot-thick veins of bituminous coal lie under much of southeastern Montana and are unearthed by modern strip-mining techniques at places like Colstrip. The Stillwater Mine is the only U.S. source for valuable platinum. Oil and gas wells dot the eastern prairies.
About half of Montana’s open land is forested. However, early overcutting and slow regrowth have limited the state’s competitiveness in the world timber market. Many locally owned independent mills have been forced to close when they can’t compete against large corporate “timber product” conglomerates, whose efficient automated factories have transformed logging from a lifestyle to a job, and which have largely practiced extractive “cut and run” logging with little concern for the forests’ future. The forests still provide a living for enterprising Montanans, though: Christmas tree farms are found in northwestern Montana, and log-home manufacturers have moved Montana into the first ranks of home-kit producers in the nation. More log homes are shipped each year to Japan than remain in Montana.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition