Farmers Canal

Gallatin County, Montana

 In 1890, farmers in the Gallatin Valley, eager to increase their yields, began work surveying and then digging a new ditch diverting water from the Gallatin River to their fields. The labor was back-breaking, even with the use of horse-drawn slips, but resulted in an 11-mile canal that flowed from Gallatin Gateway to Bozeman. The new waterway, incorporated as the Farmers Canal, is one in a web of irrigation canals snaking around the valley, and around the state of Montana. The technology is primitive — just a long hole in the ground — but indispensable to agricultural producers and the people who rely on them for food.

“Without irrigation, you wouldn’t see all this production agriculture here. It’s such a beneficial use of water,” said Dan Triemstra, current secretary of the Farmers Canal Company, the governing body that maintains the canal. “Agriculture is still a huge part of the economy of the Gallatin Valley.” 

Triemstra is also one of 25 shareholders of the Farmers Canal, which he uses to grow a handful of grains and grasses on over 1,800 acres. Irrigation might make the work of a farmer more predictable, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy.

Triemstra wakes up before dawn to move his sprinkler lines. Wearing thigh-high rubber boots, he rides a dirt bike to a wheel line, which consists of dozens of sprinklers fixed to a long pipe with wheels. After draining the pipe, Triemstra kicks on a motor that moves the contraption forward, then reattaches it to the main water line. The sprinklers begin spitting out water as the sun peeks over the Bridger Mountains, and Triemstra moves on to the next field. 

Even as the makeup of the Gallatin Valley changes, the Farmers Canal remains useful. Among its shareholders are housing developments and the city of Bozeman.

“If you tried to dig a canal nowadays — good luck," said Triemstra. "It’s a priceless thing to have that water conveyance facility there. And It ends up right in Bozeman. It's a valuable thing.”