By Lochiel Edwards, Montana Grain Growers Association

When Montanans travel beyond its borders, they might occasionally mention where they’re from. Invariably a listener will respond that they have visited, then proceed to extoll the vast landscapes, the endless sky and the breathtaking openness of the land and its people. What is it about our state that makes it so appealing?

Sure, a dramatic mix of mountains, valleys and prairies all done in heroic scale is the incredible canvas for what we have, but the independent lifestyle of its people completes the magnetic personality of this state. We certainly appreciate this, but visitors feel it and love it, too! That’s why tourism is our second largest industry. Much of this cachet is generated by our largest industry- agriculture.

Agriculture is the steward of this remarkable expanse, and contributes more than its share to the optimistic unassuming attitude noticed by others and maybe taken for granted by our own people. Farmers and ranchers and foresters touch nearly every square mile of this state, tending and caring to keep these big spaces productive and inspiring. Visitors see the scale of this and ask how the people of ag manage it!

Much of this talent is handed down through generations, but there are new lessons thrown in every year. Weather and economics are constant variables, of course, but public policy is a big factor in shaping Montana, as well. Our ag people work together in organizations like Montana Grain Growers Association to help state and federal governments understand the effect their decisions have on the Montana landscape.

As an illustration of this, let’s look at agriculture in Europe, another place that attracts tourists from everywhere. Visitors love the antiquity, the timeless old buildings and narrow streets. Quaint small farms with fields carved into cozy nooks surrounded by hedgerows and rock walls personify agriculture in the Old Country. Throw in a verdant mountainside with a small child or an old man herding goats, and the tourist is impressed!

Europe’s governments decided long ago to preserve the small fields and numerous farmers of centuries past. This fits with the preservation of old buildings and crooked streets built
for oxcarts. This requires huge subsidies due to inefficiency, but Europe also gains some food security, not to mention the landscape they desire.

That is not Montana. We experimented with that European ag model in the early 1900s with the Homestead Act establishing small tracts of land for thousands of eager young farmers and ranchers. This had been, more or less, working in the American Midwest, with better soils and climate, but we learned that Montana was special- a high northern desert demanding a different kind of agriculture and a different kind of people.

Most of those first Montana farmers went broke and moved on in the following three decades, leaving those remaining with more work to do. America responded with its own version of public policy, which was designed to slow the exodus of farmers from the land. Too many broke farmers and ranchers in the bread lines of the city was a serious problem! Ag policy was crafted to provide a buffer to the realities of economics. Over the years since WWII, Montana’s farmers and ranchers have learned their lessons in economics, with fewer farmers tending more land. And they have far more collective experience with the unforgiving climate, using technology and pragmatism to care for this landscape.

Public ag policy in America still tends to offer federal programs which act as a cushion to major disasters, rather than as a partial salary to farmers and ranchers, as Europe does. If you are a middle-class Londoner, you pay around 60% of your income to taxes and your food prices are much higher that Yankees pay. But, you’ve got the rural landscape you wanted.

America went another direction on ag policy, and wanted something different. Montana ag continues to care for a vast, unfettered landscape with fewer real farmers and ranchers. Yes, ag has had to retreat from a tide of new home subdivisions in a handful of picturesque valleys, but nearly all of our state is safe from that. But, if you live in one of Montana’s cities, this reminder- support of ag friendly policies in Helena and in Washington, DC has far-reaching implications for all of us.

If you are native, just visiting, or passing overhead at 30,000 feet and look out over that expanse, give a thought to who is out there as stewards of this special place.

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