By Matt Perdue, NFU Government Relations Representative
Farming is a risky business. A sudden storm, enduring drought, or proliferation of crop disease can decimate a crop. Even when farmers produce a bumper crop, market downturns can still make it a struggle to make ends meet. In Montana’s “Golden Triangle,” farms of all sizes and types are confronting risk amidst a faltering farm economy.
As Justin Loch and I headed northwest out of Great Falls on Highway 15, he pointed out the Sun River, a key source of water for irrigated farms in the area. Fifteen minutes after passing through Vaughn, we drove by the MillerCoors plant near Power. Justin, a young farmer and Montana Farmers Union’s (MFU) membership director, explained that MillerCoors slashed barley contracts earlier this year, delivering a tough blow to local producers. A few minutes later, we pulled off in Dutton to meet up with Orrie Gondeiro, a hired hand on Tim Johnson’s 25,000 acre farm.
Dutton is known as the Wheat Capital of Montana, but ironically, our first stop was at a thick chickpea field. Pulse crops have been growing in popularity around Dutton, especially during recent years of low barley and wheat prices. The cost of growing chickpeas is high – around $350 an acre on the Johnson Farm – but this year’s contracts promise about $800 an acre if yields are as good as expected. But small brown spots on some of the plants’ leaves could change all that. If not properly managed, Ascochyta blight can be a major problem for chickpea producers, potentially destroying an entire year’s harvest. Fortunately, with the right crop rotation and multiple fungicide applications each year, Johnson Farm has managed so far to fend it off.
We next headed over to a bright yellow mustard crop, and later a field of lentils. Altogether, about 60 percent of the Johnson Farm’s land has been seeded to pulse crops, with another significant chunk put into summer fallow. In a region known for its wheat and barley production, diversification is key to weathering market downturns. “If we could count on good wheat prices, we wouldn’t do any of this,” Orrie told me. With high demand for chickpeas in India, many farms in the Golden Triangle have remained profitable through the downturn in the farm economy by branching out into less traditional crops.
After the farm visit, I spent the afternoon listening to farmers and ranchers concerns at MFU’s farm bill listening session. The conversation revolved around safety net and crop insurance programs, as many producers in the area are worried about low commodity prices and falling farm revenue. At the end of the meeting, I was introduced to Cascade County Farmers Union President Eric Bergman, who made time to swing by between his weekly CSA deliveries.
Risk has been on Eric and Audra Bergman’s minds since they first moved to Groundworks Farm, their 40-acre organic operation in Fort Shaw, eight years ago. The Bergmans’ direct market vegetable and beef farm deviates from the large, conventional cropland farms that prevail in the area. But to the Bergmans, the scenic Sun River valley was the perfect place to start.
Tired from a long day of hauling produce, Eric and Audra greeted me with smiles as I pulled into their yard. As they described their organic vegetable and grass-fed beef operation, they told me they have also raised broiler chickens, laying hens, and grass-fed hogs. In a county with only 81,000 people spread across 2,700 square miles, any single market hasn’t quite generated the profits they’ve hoped for. Instead, they’ve focused on diversity, hoping to appeal to a wide array of potential customers.
Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Eric and Audra talk about their lives as farmers with enthusiasm. They employ crop diversity and rotation practices as well as on-farm nutrient cycling to boost their production in lieu of chemical products. At the same time, their seemingly endless string of ideas for marketing their pork, beef, and vegetables has helped them maintain a steady income.
There is no way for farmers to avoid risk completely. They must constantly adapt to various pressures by adding new crops to their rotations and seeking out new markets. Winter canola will be the next experiment on the Johnson Farm later this year, and the Bergmans are considering a bevy of new market strategies. With resilient spirits, creative thinking, and careful planning, farmers and ranchers in the Golden Triangle will keep finding ways to make it work.