There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.
Unless you inherit the farm, it’s an uphill battle to make it in agriculture today. Justin and Traci Helton combined a little of both in creating a versatile farming operation that concentrates on the four main crops produced in Fremont County.
Beginning with 500 acres that Justin’s grandparents Speed and Wanda Givens owned, the couple has added 400 more acres to their operation and leases an additional 1000 acres at locations from Hidden Valley to near the base of the Owl Creek Mountains at North Portal.
Traci is a 2002 Riverton High School graduate who moved to Riverton as a 13-year-old from Jackson. She excelled in sports for the Lady Wolverines and was a state contender in the 400-meter dash.
Justin was a Riverton kid also but graduated from Shoshoni in 2004.
“We knew each other in high school, but didn’t get together until 2005,” Traci said.
The number six has a magic connection for them, at least in calendar terms. It came into their relationship early, in three consecutive years. They were married on December 6, 2006, in Las Vegas, they had their wedding reception on January 6, 2007, and their daughter Payton was born on March 6, 2008.
They have two children in Jaxon Stanley (18) and Payton (15).
Justin grew up on his grandparent’s family farm, the central location of their operation.
“We raised cattle and sheep,” Justin said.
Traci was a “city girl” from Riverton.
“Everything I know about farming, I learned from Justin,” Traci said.
That amounts to a formidable volume of knowledge when you consider the depth, variety, and distances involved in their operation.
The couple raises alfalfa, corn, beets, and triticale.
Justin is especially proud of his triticale field and the tremendous yields the man-made blend of rye and wheat can produce.
They have a 115-acre field near the intersection of Highway 789 and Missouri Valley Road. The field produced 400 tons of hay when they harvested the green triticale before it ripened in 2022. With the unseasonably heavy rainfall this summer, yields may exceed that.
“It’s good feed,” Justin said. “Cattle love it.”
In addition to the triticale, they planted 236 acres of sugar beets.
The couple keeps 400 acres set aside as pasture, though they don’t have any grazing livestock. Speed still keeps about 30 head of cattle.
The triticale is mixed with oats and beardless barley in a seed mix known as three-way.
Beets are always a challenge requiring the weather to cooperate, water in abundance and a lot of equipment when it’s time to harvest. This year’s weather was not ideal.
“We started late this year because of the cold spring,” Traci said. “We’re almost a month later than usual.”
They cut hay on 1,000 acres of alfalfa and sell most of it locally.
From the original 300 acres on his grandpa’s place, the couple purchased additional land from Bob Schrinar, then added another section nearby from Jeff Brown. The Brown purchase was on land once owned by Bruce Davidson and is still regarded as the “Davidson Place” by locals.
Justin learned the intricacies of agriculture from one of the legendary farmers of the Riverton area in the late Gary Jennings.
“Billy (Gary’s son Bill) is still one of my best friends,” Justin said.
That knowledge is invaluable for a young man and his family trying to make it in the economically perilous world of Wyoming agriculture, but it’s working for the Helton’s so far.
They plant beets for a year, then corn for a couple of years, then rotate back to alfalfa for five to seven years. It’s all part of utilizing crops, and the natural intake and removal of nitrogen that allows good yields for centuries on the same land.
“I went right to work after I graduated,” Justin said. “I bought a tractor and baled hay.”
Traci originally had a goal of becoming a registered nurse, but that didn’t pan out.
“I dabbled at CWC,” Traci said. “I had my CNA and started in the nursing program. My favorite job was working with the heart doctors from Casper.”
Making it in agriculture as a youngster with the tremendous cost of equipment, fuel, and supplies and the unstable markets that can make or break a farmer in a single day presented a challenge.
“I get a lot of people asking about how we made it,” Justin said. “There are still hard times.”
Traci noted what a big year 2015 proved to be for them.
“We went from 400 to 1400 acres in just eight months,” She said.
Vast acreages spread out over dozens of miles take careful planning to get optimal production. It takes high-end equipment as well.
“It takes the acres to pay for the machinery, but it takes machinery to cover the acres,” Justin said.
They have a new, top-of-the-line John Deere rotary swather, a pair of John Deer tractors, one rated at 235 horsepower and the other at 245 horsepower, along with skid steer loaders, rakes, semi-tractors, and a variety of other equipment. The inventory to run an operation of 1900 acres is substantial.
Amid all the equipment, tilled acreage, and variety of crops, the availability or lack of it in irrigation water is one of the key concerns.
The farm off Hoot Owl Road and the adjacent Schrinar and Davidson farms are on the Riverton Valley Irrigation System, the leased ground they call the Carney Place on the northern end of North Portal is part of the Midvale System. No matter which irrigation district they work with, water is the lifeline for successful crops of any type in Fremont County.
Justin is on the Riverton Valley Irrigation District Board and sees the day-to-day issues that can arise when water gets short.
“Water gets tight before first and second cutting,” Justin said. “It’s a managerial nightmare. This extra rain we’ve gotten this year gives a false sense of security.”
When the topic of water arises on the farm, that’s Traci’s bailiwick.
“I do most of the irrigating, that’s my job,” Traci said. “I throw tubes on a section of concrete ditch, and flood irrigate.”
Sometimes irrigating has a few nasty little surprises in the early morning.
“The bull snakes lay under the dams in the concrete ditch,” Traci said. “Sometimes I can see their heads or just their tails sticking out. When I find one that really gets to me.”
While the couple is constantly on the move on the farm, they take time to support Payton and Jaxon in activities at Shoshoni High School.
Jaxon is a two-time all-state selection for the Wranglers in football and was a starter on the 2021 state championship 9-man football team.
Payton is active in FFA, so active that she broke a longstanding tradition in serving as Shoshoni FFA Chapter president for the upcoming year as a sophomore. No one has ever been president in the long history of Shoshoni FFA that hasn’t been a junior or senior.
Payton has established goals in agriculture, and FFA provides a great pathway.
“I want to be an ag teacher,” she said. “Kids now don’t see the real meaning of agriculture.”
Payton is also involved in livestock judging and was in horse judging as well. She finished fourth as an individual in the FFA National Contest in Ag Science. She will show four hogs at the Fremont County Fair next week.
The move from town to the farm was a sharp contrast for Traci.
“The learning curve was pretty steep,” she said. “Mostly, I irrigate.”
You can’t farm this many acres, especially when they’re separated by miles or dozens of miles without help. The couple relies on the work of four young men to keep the operation in tip-top shape.
Jaxon, their son is one, but three others, Austin Rico, (20) Garrett Neil (18), and Carlos, an older man with a family, all take on responsibilities that let Justin and Traci work on other projects while they’re sure things are being done correctly.
“These guys are great,” Justin said. “I can leave them alone and know that things are being done the right way.”
In addition to all the other crops and work they do, Justin holds a CDL and hauls cattle, and hay to local ranchers, as well as longer hauls when time and the workload permit.
Making it in agriculture is a challenge that many fall short of as markets, interest rates, and prices fluctuate.
The diversity of the Helton operation and their dedication to working through the challenges they face put them ahead of the curve.
The scenery they work in day-to-day is spectacular, from the foothills of the Owl Creeks to the majestic butte rising behind the field of prized sweetcorn that Tracii plants each year east of the house, the views are epic.
Jaxon has an interest in taking over the operation in the future, but for now, it’s a husband and wife operation with help from the family and three outstanding hired men that keep the farm going.