HELENA, Mont. – Founded as a gold camp in the 1860s, Helena is a city rich with Montana history. It became the territorial and eventual state capitol, with the current Capitol building completed in 1902. According to the latest census, Helena is the state’s sixth most populated city, so by Montana standards, it is quite the metropolitan area, and right smack dab in the thick of it all is Cedar Creek Land and Livestock, owned by Joe and Julie Dooling.
Originally from Dillon, Mont., a job brought Joe to the Helena Valley in 1999. By 2003, Joe took a chance and stepped off on his own.
“I knew a guy who had 260 acres under two center pivots and was looking for someone to lease it, so I leased it. I didn’t have a tractor and I didn’t have a baler, all I had was my pickup and I had to beg, borrow and steal those first couple of years to get it done,” Joe recollected.
Thankfully, Joe’s tenacity, combined with the federally-guaranteed water that lease land was allotted out of Canyon Ferry Dam, made for successful crop years and he was able to start building an operation. Today, Cedar Creek Land and Livestock raises alfalfa and malt barley under eight center pivots with all of the water federally-guaranteed. They also run about 150 head of momma cows.
Having access to guaranteed water is certainly a farmer’s dream, but farming in the Helena Valley comes with its own set of challenges, Joe admits. The biggest of which is simply the people.
“The last time I counted I had over 120 neighbors. There are subdivisions all around, so I am the definition of urban interface farming,” he added.
When moving equipment from one pivot to the other during harvest, Joe says it is not at all out of the ordinary for him to have over a mile of traffic backed up behind him before he can safely pull over. Also he says, it is not uncommon for inquisitive neighbors to call him when he is out running a sprayer or spreading fertilizer.
Although Helena hasn’t quite seen the development boom that other Montana metropolitan areas like Bozeman and Missoula have, Joe says there is still a noticeable increase of people. Despite the challenges of farming in an urban setting, Joe is one to always look for the silver lining.
“I always try to find the positive and one of the positives I can say for the urban interface is that you don’t ever have to worry about where you are going to get your lunch. For me, I am never more than a mile from like five restaurants and three gas stations,” Joe said with a chuckle.
In addition to having a passion for agriculture, Joe and his wife Julie are involved in politics. Julie currently serves in the Montana Legislature and is the vice-chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Joe ran for Montana’s U.S. House seat in 2020. Between spring cattle work and planting it can sometimes be challenging to schedule around Julie’s Legislative schedule, but thankfully the Montana Legislature only meets every other year.
The 2021 Montana Legislative session is winding down, so before long Joe will have his full-time partner back, just in time for the business of summer to begin.
As for now, Joe is wrapping up planting his malt barley and finishing getting all of the calves branded and ready to head to their summer pasture up out of Augusta. Joe’s water will be turned on May 1, signaling the true start of his growing season.
The Prairie Star would like thank Joe and Julie Dooling for sharing their farming operation with readers during the 2021 growing season. We wish them great success!