Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana
Now a second-generation dryland farmer in northern Montana, Ryan Lankford grew up on his family’s farm on the Fort Belknap Reservation. It was a hardscrabble life at first. The farm’s location on the reservation made it difficult to secure financing. Then, in the ‘80s shortly after it was established, the farm was nearly wiped out by a multi-year drought and rising interest rates. The family was forced to file for bankruptcy and sell everything, including their house. But Ryan’s father and uncle Tom refused to give up. With their community’s support, they eventually built one of the largest farming operations in the area. Still, after watching all the hardship his family faced as he grew up, Ryan says, “I never planned on being a farmer.”
Ryan dreamed of going to college, becoming an engineer and getting away from his small hometown. However, he knew there wasn’t money to fund his education, and he didn’t want to burden his family with debt. Joining the Army Reserves in high school was Ryan’s strategy to follow his dream. He planned to use the G.I. Bill to fund a civil engineering degree from Montana State University.
Answering the call
During his sophomore year, 9/11 happened and Ryan got the call – the Army needed him for Operation Enduring Freedom. He spent almost two years on active duty as a staff sergeant training soldiers and as an instructor for Ordinance Military Occupational Skill. After he mustered out, he finished his coursework and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from MSU, but the call to serve his country lingered. Ryan couldn’t shake it.
This call to serve is common among veterans. It’s the reason they join the service and often, as in Ryan’s case, it never fades. While finishing school, Ryan began to realize how much he missed being on the farm. He decided that returning to farming and producing food to feed our nation is exactly what he needed to do.
“The call to serve in the military and to work on the farm are the same; it’s a call to service,” says Ryan. “We’re not doing it to be rich and we’re not doing it for the fanfare. We’re doing it because it’s just our calling.”
Service by a different route
Ryan’s father didn’t want him to return to the farm. Feeling the tough side of farming firsthand, he didn’t want his son to experience the same instability. As much as he tried to talk Ryan out of coming back, Ryan was determined to return to his family’s operation.
Today, 10 years later, Ryan runs all the major operations on the farm with his wife, Lindsey, and parents, Jerry and Bonnie. Since his return, the farm’s acreage has nearly doubled and continues to produce wheat, pulses and canola, both traditional and organic.
As a young sergeant in the Army, Ryan led and instructed men much older than he, acquiring strong leadership skills. Today, he uses these skills to guide his employees into the military. So far, he has persuaded four of them to follow their instinctive call to serve. And upon their return, Ryan has a fulfilling and satisfying career of service in farming waiting for them.
Ryan joined more than 30 veterans in Washington, D.C. at the Farm Credit Farmer Veteran Fly-In in July 2018. Farm Credit invited these veterans to Washington to help policymakers understand the importance of programs that enable returning service members to forge meaningful careers in agriculture. Ryan also served as a panelist at the Senate Agriculture Committee, sharing his journey with policymakers.