Article & Photos by Stacy Bronec
Many Montanans look forward to summer months full of vacations, days on the lake, and a slower pace of life, but for farmers, this time of year is anything but slow. The months and weeks that lead to harvest bring anticipation and an eagerness to get started. Local producer, Rich Bronec, farms with his family in Chouteau County.
“Working with my family is the best part of farming,” he says, “but it can be the hardest part too.”
Those who work with their families can understand the struggle of differing personalities, and sometimes the closeness of relationships can be a challenge in a professional setting. But it can also be the most gratifying part too—doing what you love with those you are closest to.
This area is known for its wheat production, garnering the nickname “The Golden Triangle.” Wheat is the main crop grown in this area, but over the last few years, many farmers have started diversifying by growing lentils, chickpeas, and flax, among other crops.
Harvest takes place toward the end of July and into August, but the work begins much sooner. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, needing to lie dormant over the winter months before resuming growth in the spring. Then the spring crops are planted when the weather cooperates in April and May. Most farmland in this area is dryland—the crops’ moisture is 100% dependent on the weather, no irrigation. For most of June, the farmers around this area were hoping and praying for rain. On Bronec’s farm, they didn’t see significant rain for almost 30 days.
“It’s discouraging when the rain keeps going around us. With all the work we’ve put in, it all hinges on something that is out of my control,” Bronec says while cutting wheat during another long workday. He continues: “It’s humbling, which is good.”
Bronec says he tries to keep things in perspective during harvest. While his stress levels are at an all-time high, he tries to fully appreciate it too.
Bronec did receive a beneficial rain at the end of June but was hit with some hail in July, a week before he planned to start cutting. While hail is always a risk, it still feels like a gut-punch to see your crop smashed into the ground—a year’s worth of work ruined in a matter of minutes. Fortunately for Bronec, it wasn’t his whole crop, and crop insurance will help the financial loss, but the disappointment was still there.
From a practical standpoint, harvest means a paycheck.
“Your crop is sitting out there all year, and you don’t know for sure how it will turn out. Once it’s in the bin, there’s a lot less risk and a sense of relief,” says Bronec.
He also sees it as a “report card”—a good way to measure what he’s done over the past year.
In 2018, Montana ranked 4th in the U.S. in wheat production. But despite producing over 197.6 million bushels of wheat in 2018, some Montanans admit to being naive about agriculture.
Brooke Steinberger, from Great Falls, says, “Before I met my husband, harvest was something I knew nothing about, and I didn’t care either. I was so naive about where my food came from and how much labor and passion was put into growing it.”
Harvest creates a boost to the local economy, even for those who aren’t directly involved in agriculture. The grocery stores and gas stations see an influx of customers—harvesting crews in search of their next meal.
During harvest, the crops are stored in bins, then during the fall and winter months, they will be hauled to grain elevators in the area. Most of the wheat is loaded onto railcars and shipped overseas, but some will end up at local mills.
When I ask Bronec why he keeps farming year after year,
“To improve,” he says. “Every decision impacts the future. Experimenting and observation provide a pathway to success. Each year builds on the last.”
Harvest runs right into fall planting, and the cycle starts again. At the end of the season, everyone is worn out, but there is also a sense of accomplishment. Next season they will do it all over again because it’s more than a job. It’s their passion and way of life.