What does the beginning of a ranch look like for someone just starting? According to the 2017 census, Montana has 10,920 new or beginning farmers and ranchers, or approximately 23% of the total Montana producers. Starting a ranch or farm requires a lot of planning, investment, and bravery. It can come with steep learning curves that necessitate creative approaches to succeed.

Caroline and Justin Nelson of Little Creek Lamb & Beef in Townsend are an example of the creativity and adaptability required of many beginning Montana producers. Little Creek Lamb & Beef specializes in direct-to-consumer meats, artisanal ranch goods, and hands-on events. They implement regenerative agriculture practices like supporting healthy soil, leaving roots in the ground, plant diversity, and rotational grazing. They also utilize grazing and livestock leases, social media, agritourism, and accessible resources such as MSU Extension.

When asked on the Discover Ag Podcast about the bravery it took to start the ranch, Caroline said, “Fear alone was never a good enough reason not to pursue something.” Her years of work as a singer-songwriter helped her learn resiliency, and those skills have transferred to her life in agriculture. Starting the ranch did not happen in a vacuum.


Caroline Nelson at Little Creek Lamb and Beef

Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension


Caroline credits the community of support Little Creek received, “So many people helped us: my cousin designed our logo, former employers traded us work for pasture, Justin and his family have done so much, people spread the word, and customers took a leap of faith on a new business. Five Marys Farm and Felton Angus Beef were early mentors and helped me get started shipping. Little Creek is my baby, but it has taken a village.”

The first year of operation began with four Icelandic sheep kept on a ranch where Caroline was a ranch hand. It took a few years of working outside jobs while caring for their flock before they could turn their attention to ranching full-time. Without the initial capital to purchase the land needed to raise the growing herd of sheep, they utilized grazing leases with neighboring landowners. Grazing leases allow them to grow their herd with less upfront investment. They can change leases to adjust the budget if there is a challenging year.

At the core of everything is the land. The soil, plants, and root systems are central to Caroline and Justin’s operation. When the soil and plants are healthy, they require fewer inputs like fertilizers and water, which saves money and resources. These practices require assessing the soil and making management decisions that fit their larger goals.

When it comes to caring for the soil, Caroline and Justin work with Broadwater County MSU Extension Agent Allison Kosto, who helps review and discuss the soil test results. The relationship between Kosto and Little Creek has been fulfilling for both parties. According to Kosto, “Working with beginning farmers and ranchers is truly rewarding, especially to watch businesses like Little Creek Lamb & Beef grow. Sometimes our role as Extension Agents is simply about helping people connect the dots and find resources they need to be successful.”


“Fear alone was never a good enough reason not to pursue something.”


Lambs in a field.

Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension

Little Creek offers immersive agritourism experiences for women looking to connect with and learn about agriculture through cowgirl and shepherd camps. Women from all over the United States stay at working ranches where they learn through hands-on experiences like lambing, herding, hoof trimming, animal health checks,and shearing. These experiences provide a safe and welcoming environment for people to create a personal connection with agriculture and food production.

Their direct-to-consumer sales and agritourism are supported through a robust social media presence. Just like the camps, Little Creek uses social media to provide a personal connection between their followers and agriculture. Their social media accounts give people a peek into their daily lives as ranchers – both the good and the challenges. Followers also get to learn about Little Creek products and events. Caroline embraces dialogue, engaging with people’s comments and direct messages.


“Little Creek is my baby, but it has taken a village.”

Little Creek’s core values of transparency, sustainability, and customer experience guide them as they grow and encounter challenges. It took bravery to begin the ranch. Connection to the land, animals, and people has helped it grow. You can learn more about Little Creek Lamb & Beef through their website (https://littlecreekmontana.shop/) and Instagram profile (@littlecreekmontana).



Erika Malo is the MSU Extension External Relations and Social Media Coordinator.


Lams in a field.

Photo: Erika Malo, MSU Extension


Grazing Leases

MontGuide: Grazing Leases(store.msuextension.org/Products/Grazing-Leases-MT201601AG__MT201601AG.aspx)

MontGuide: Contributions Approach to Pasture Leasing: A Pasture Lease Calculator (store.msuextension.org/Products/Contributions-Approach-to-Pasture-Leasing-A-Pasture-Lease-Calculator-MT201815AG__MT201815AG.aspx)


Montana Agritourism: www.montanaagritourism.com