Robert and Joan Wellman, who started leasing land in 1975, both agree there is no magic formula for finding success as a rancher and a farmer.
“We just work hard, take care of business, and take advantage of the luck we often create for ourselves,” said Joan. “I have always had the mentality that if you work twice as hard and you are twice as smart at what you do then you will have twice the amount of success,” added Robert.
Besides both of their constant hard work, Joan praises Robert’s connection to their land as another reason for their success. “Robert is just real earthy and grounded to our land. Frequently he is able to feel something is wrong with our land and I think that is a really neat skill,” she said.
The couple first met when they both were enrolled in Browning High School and were later married in September 1974. While Robert was raised on a 5,000-acre ranch on the Two Medicine, Joan grew up in the Town of Browning with little ranching experience.
That didn’t stop her from embracing Robert’s dream of owning land. When asked if she ever thought about being a rancher, Joan smiled and replied, “My dream was always his dream.”
Robert laughingly added, “It was a dream, but it could have been a real nightmare because in the beginning I had a lot of drive and no sense.”
The couple began leasing land in Pondera County in 1975 and working on the family ranch. The amount of acres the couple worked on would grow over the years and with it the couple’s perseverance and determination would grow, too.
Shortly after working on the family ranch, the Wellmans decided that they wanted to purchase more acres. They visited two banks in Cut Bank, two banks in Shelby, and one in Conrad before they were approved for a small loan by Dan Majerus and Stockman Bank in Conrad in 1980. “We had a lot of perseverance during those years and Robbie just does not take no for an answer,” said Joan with a smile.
After the struggle of receiving the loan, the Wellmans faced another challenge when applying for a loan from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) to buy 300 head of cattle.
“We were rejected by FmHA so we went to the State Board and they overturned the rejection,” said Joan. “Over the course of time we have had to go to the State Board three times to get rejections overturned,” added Robert.
The Wellmans would go on to buy their first ranch, the Thane Wulfe Ranch. The realtor caused major problems when she allowed her nephew to make a bid and live on the ranch after the owner had accepted the Wellmans’ bid. They also faced the owner of the property who had little faith that the Wellmans would be able to make payments.
“To finally get the place we had to keep promising that we would pay off the ranch in four years and we did just that,” said Joan.
Since 1990, the Wellmans have purchased an additional seven ranches. The number of acres the Wellmans now own and lease has grown exponentially over the years. These acres consist of both range and farm land. “We grow grain and raise cattle and it has been a good mixture for us,” explained Robert.
When the Wellmans started haying their land in Pondera County, they saw others farming and decided to start. “I always thought farmers made more money than ranchers,” said Robert with a laugh. “I saw those other guys farming and thought I could do this. Plus, there was the added motivation of other people telling me I wouldn’t be a good farmer and knowing others were waiting for me to fail.”
The Wellmans credit their overall success in farming not only to hard work, but also to being able to get into the farming cycle at the right time. “When we got into farming the farm prices went up and now they are going down,” said Robert.
“We were lucky to have such a good beginning to build ourselves up.”
While luck plays a role, the Wellmans mostly attribute their success to being hardworking people who manage their ranch hands on. “We never really take much time off so we work hands on most of the time and I think working hands on has lead to our success,” stated Robert. Joan agreed, adding “We have both really worked hands on for the entire time we have owned land up until about last year when we started hiring more ranch hands.”
Throughout the year the Wellmans employ up to seven full-time employees, which does not include their son Casey Wellman and nephew Daniel Barcus who are Robert and Joan’s right hand men. “We are truly very fortunate to have such loyal and hardworking employees to help us with all our ranching and farming tasks,” say both Robert and Joan.
Both Casey and Daniel are set to take over the land when Robert and Joan retire. “We brought our son and nephew into our adventure and they feel fortunate and so do we that we have someone to take over the family ranch.”
Creating their own luck by being in the right place at the right time is not lost on Robert and Joan who both admit that it would be a lot harder for today’s generation to be able to start their own farms and ranches.
“Today’s young start up farmers and ranchers face challenges of having to pay higher prices for land and equipment than we had to in the beginning,” Robert pointed out. “The profit margins are very slim these days which makes it extremely hard for today’s generation to find success in farming and ranching. And that is very sad and unfortunate for those who have the dream of becoming ranchers and farmers.”
The Wellmans have found success, but with that success they have also lost support over the years. “It is like what an old rancher once told me, the more success you have the less friends you will have.”
The Wellmans have had to face the challenge of overcoming a lot of non-supporters over the years. “Its hard because there are a lot of people who don’t like to see you succeed and there are people who just don’t support you or give you credit for your success. So you have to work really hard and have a lot of perseverance to overcome the lack of support and the attitudes of non-supporters,” explained Robert.
The Wellmans may not have had everyone’s support but they still have great support from three communities and countless family members.
“We have had nice community support over the years from Browning, Cut Bank, and Valier and a lot of family support and a lot of support from Robert’s mom, Ramona,” said Joan with a smile.
The Wellmans also face other obstacles when it comes to managing their land. “If you love what you do there is never really a bad part, there are only obstacles,” believe both Robert and Joan.
One of the obstacles that they have to deal with is an obscene amount of paperwork that has to go through county, state, federal, and often tribal governments and that often becomes problematic.
“In general, the government can be really inefficient and there are always mistakes or hold ups that do not allow us to always get our paperwork processed quickly,” shared Robert. “Bureaucracies often just make a lot of obstacles that are probably not necessary and with those obstacles only the producers truly suffer,” added Joan.
Despite the obstacles, the Wellmans have managed to overcome so much in order to achieve their success. “We are just happy every time we have an opportunity to create more success,” said Joan. She hopes every time they bought a ranch the sellers sold to them because “they knew the land would be in good hands and that they could trust Robert and Joan.”
Success doesn’t always last forever and that is something that Robert often worries about. “I get nervous all the time about the farm and ranch not doing very well especially when the prices keep going down,” said Robert.
Joan, on the other hand, has never really worried about them having great success. “When you are young and in love you go along with your partner and you never really think about success. You just like doing all the ranch chores because you just are enjoying living in the moment,” she said matter-of-factly.
Since their first purchases, the Wellmans have greatly increased the number of head of cattle and acres they farm and ranch, but that isn’t what has made being in the business worth it for them.
“The best part about being a rancher and a farmer is the lifestyle of being able to be our own bosses and being with family,” shared Joan.
“I agree with Joan. I also think another good part is having the ability to overcome hardship to have success and pride in work,” added Robert.
Not only is the ranch and farm successful, but so are Robert and Joan’s three children Nicole, Carrie, and Casey. All three graduated from Valier High School. Nicole and Carrie earned their college degrees from Stanford University. “My kids loved growing up in Valier and graduating from Valier High School,” explains Joan. “I really give a lot of credit to Valier Schools, especially the teachers, and the Valier community for the success of my children.”
Nicole is a dermatologist in Great Falls where she lives with her husband, Don Donester, and two children, Nicholas and Brandon.
Carrie is a project manager for a web design firm LVMC in San Francisco where she lives with her husband, Darren Ross, and son, Hudson.
Casey has also found success by working hard alongside his dad to make sure the farm and ranch continue to do well.
“I think we have always shown them through our hard work that if you work hard you will do well,” said Joan. “Really, what it boils down to is, we raised our kids by example,” believes Robert.
Both Robert and Joan showed their children not only how to work hard, but also how to treat people and the importance of having a good mentality when it comes to racism.
Robert and Joan, who are both enrolled members of the Blackfeet Tribe, have faced prejudice in a variety of forms over the years.
“Racism is all relative and prejudice has so many forms that you just have to rise above it and let a lot of the stuff not have an affect on you,” explains Robert.
“When our children were growing up, we never taught them anything about race. We only taught them to always do their best,” said Joan. The Wellmans tried to instill in their children “you are never better than anybody but you are as good as them. Once you have that mentality, it makes all the difference when hearing racist comments. Racism makes you a victim and it is a choice to rise above it,” explained Robert.
Robert and Joan hope the range and farm land will remain in the family for as long as possible. “Our one grandson, Brandon, really loves being out here on our land with us and Daniel’s son, Shane, loves ranching and farming,” said Joan. “So we think there is a good chance that the land will always be left in good hands and will remain in the family.”