Photo courtesy of the USDA
By Brad Reynolds
Agriculture is risky business, a game of wits and wagers. Like a professional gambler, a producer casts their lots judiciously, astute in each decision. Yet no matter how shrewd, no matter how skilled, the producer, like the gambler, is ultimately at the mercy of fate.
The gambler calls her Lady Luck.
The producer calls her Mother Nature.
“Between Mother Nature and the markets, farmers and ranchers are at the mercy of a lot of unknowns,” explains Bing Von Bergen, a farmer in central Montana. “Some years we do well. This was not one of those years.”
A Losing Hand
In cards you’d fold a bad hand. In agriculture, there’s little choice but to play it through.
Excepting a lucky few who received adequate moisture, Montana farms and ranches were devastated by severe drought in 2021. Add to that an awful fire season and a grasshopper plague (so shocking in scale that the National Weather Service mistook one swarm for a 170-mile-long thundercloud), and you have a recipe for disaster.
“I was feeling pretty good about the amount of grass I had saved for summer grazing until the grasshoppers mowed it all to the ground,” says Lisa Schmidt of her sheep and cattle ranch in north-central Montana. “By the time I hosted a soils workshop in mid-July, I was embarrassed by the lack of grass and lots of bare ground. But I can get over embarrassment.”
Summer 2021 was a game of survival, having less to do with production than mitigation of damage wrought. Statewide, wheat—Montana’s number one export—did horribly. Only thirteen percent of spring wheat crops were rated better than poor, and more alarming, 91 percent of the state’s pasture land was rated poor to very poor.
“Ranchers budget somewhere around $100 a ton for hay every year. That price fluctuates, but it hovers around $100,” Schmidt explains. “This year, many ranchers are paying three times that much. Essentially, they are spending three years of money for one year of income. The profit margin in agriculture is nowhere near high enough to recover from that kind of expense.”
There’s an insult to injury here, Von Bergen observes; “Market prices are good right now, but that’s irrelevant if you don’t have [product] to sell.”
Many farmers that took advantage of presale prices didn’t even produce enough to cover their contracts.
Ranchers are meanwhile in a balancing act, liquidating just enough resources to pay the bills without crippling future production.
“It’s easy to wonder why a rancher wouldn’t just sell her cattle and start over after it rains,” says Schmidt. “Many ranchers— myself included—work hard to develop genetics that work in a specific location. Not every breed of cow will thrive in every type of condition. Also, cows learn what and where to eat
the most nutritional feed from their mothers, so losing the ‘institutional wisdom’ by selling an entire herd is detrimental to the ranch for a long time.”
Ultimately, the reality is that one bad year can have long- term consequences—not just for Montana’s ag producers, but for all Montanans.
Cards on the Table
Agriculture is the heart of Montana. Nearly one-fifth of the state’s population works in an ag-related field, and the industry as a whole contributes more than four billion dollars annually; so, when the industry suffers, we all do.
“Ag folks have to tighten their belts now,” explains Von Bergen.
That means less disposable income to spend at local shops, automotive and equipment dealers, and restaurants. Any business deemed “non-essential” will be affected.
Additionally, the shortage of ag products this year will inevitably lead to rising food costs.
“Prices will go up at the grocery store,” Von Bergen assures. “Fuel is up. Labor is up. Trucking is up. Consumers like to blame inflation on ‘greedy farmers,’ but the cost of bread is going up because we have no wheat to sell, not because we’re getting rich.”
The financial blow to the state is significant, and there are impacts beyond the economy.
“When grass doesn’t grow or grasshoppers eat it to the ground, soil becomes exposed. Exposed soil blows away. Once it is gone, nothing will grow in that spot, so our ability to feed ourselves declines,” Schmidt explains. “I had a chance to visit Greece one time. So much of the soil in Greece has blown away that Greeks can’t feed themselves. They import almost all of their food. Besides the expense of imported food, they are vulnerable to the whims of other countries that don’t have their best interests at heart.”
Dependence on a foreign food source is a concept sure to make Montanans shudder. So long as production ag lands stay in ag producers’ hands, that will never happen—but in recent years, Montana has seen hundreds of thousands of acres fall into the hands of corporations and groups like the American Prairie Reserve.
“The monetary demands of agriculture are mindboggling anymore. People who are struggling may be more prone to sell,” says Von Bergen. “APR is not affected by drought because APR was not created to be a for-profit business; the farmer’s neighbors are. They’re going to have a harder time coming up with money to purchase that land.”
With rising input costs and a decline in spending cash, it’s going to be difficult for any producer—seasoned or otherwise—to buy ag land for sale in the immediate future. For every farm and ranch lost to non-agricultural owners, food security declines.
Nearly eight billion humans live on this planet. Every last acre of usable land is necessary in agriculture’s effort to feed them all.
All in on Agriculture
When the chips are down, Montana’s ag producers will always make the best of the hand their dealt. In their hearts and minds, agriculture—even in a bad year—is still the best game in town.
“In any business there’s stress. Yes, this is a bad year, but we’ve had a lot of good ones,” says Von Bergen. “This is the business we’ve chosen. We’ll be fine.”
Grit, it would seem, is a timeless trait in agriculture. Farmers and ranchers tamed Montana’s wild terrain. They survived the winter of 1886, the Great Fire of 1910, the drought of the 1930s, and the flood of 1964. Montana agriculture, from the beginning, has been an occupation for the iron-willed. Each generation has encountered its share of unexpected challenges. It’s a safe bet they’ll weather this too.