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2024 Montana Primary elections

Ag Income Is Rising But Some Montana Farmers Feel Left Behind

Hay bales in a field.

The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts American net farm income this year will be about 10% higher than in 2018.

Great news, right? Not so fast, say some Montana farmers.

The newly minted president of the Montana Farmers Union summarizes the 2019 year in ag this way.

"In one word: 'stressful'. Family farm agriculture is in a crisis," says Walter Schweitzer.

Schweitzer raises registered black angus cattle and runs a haying operation near Geyser. He says lousy crop prices, growing operating costs, as well as mounting farm debt are heaping tremendous pressure on American family farms.

"And yet they read the press and they watch TV and all they hear is how good things are, and how great things are. They think it’s them, and they start to question whether or not they’re just losers."

Schweitzer says it’s taking a taking a serious toll on farmers' mental health. According to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, rural suicide rates are greater than urban ones, and the gap has grown steadily since 1999.

Despite the immense pressures on family farmers, the federal government reports farm income in the country is going up. But this year a significant chunk of that money came from the government. The USDA reports that direct government farm payments increased by 64% in 2019. At the same time, farm receipts are expected to increase from animal products and crops .1% and 1% respectively.

If USDA’s forecast pans out, this will be the third consecutive year of rising agricultural receipts. But Montana farmers aren’t getting rich selling their product on the open market. The government is instead helping bail them out of the trade war doldrums. Many producers are just treading water.

In ag lingo, the federal bail-out for farmers is called the Market Facilitation Program.

"To me it makes no sense at all," says MFU President Walter Schweitzer.

"The intent behind it was to backfill the losses farmers were getting because of the trade wars, but when you look at where the dollars went, it wasn’t going to the family farms, it was going to corporations."

According to the Washington D.C. based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, Montana farmers have received $115 million worth of federal bailout payments since 2018. Total Market Facilitation Program payments in the United States over the past two years totaled over $14 billion, with the lion’s share of that money going to midwestern soybean producers.

"We have the lowest rate of reimbursement of any states in the union. If you got it, it was less than $15 bucks an acre," Schweitzer says.

Vince Mattson is president of Montana Grain Growers Association. His family operates a farm near Chester in north central Montana where they primarily grow winter wheat. He says this year’s drought in Liberty County was brutal on his crops.

"And cut well below average yields. Probably the lowest in about 10 years or better."

Mattson says those federal ag bailout payments, combined with crop insurance helped a lot of Montana farmers make it to the end of the year. But he adds no reputable ag producer would ever voluntarily choose subsides over sales.

"Just give us the ability to sell our product on a fair and equal playing field and we’ll take care of the rest. We would rather prefer that route than getting payments — for sure, no doubt about it."

Walter Schweitzer agrees.

"We’re here to feed the world, not take a subsidy check. But, you know, they have no choice because their bankers are telling them, 'you need that [money]. You need it any way you can get it', because they have debt to pay."

Heading into the 2020 election, Schweitzer, who happens to be former Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s brother, suspects some farmers are losing patience with the Trump Administration’s trade policies. Farmers and ranchers were a key Trump constituency in 2016.

Montana Grain Growers Association Executive Vice President, Lola Raska, however, says recent developments might just pay dividends for the Trump Administration.

"It’s certainly been a rollercoaster and very unpredictable all year, but now that we’re seeing some results, I think there is a little bit more patience to see how these things turn out. We’ve got Japan in place now. That was critical for Montana – especially for Montana wheat producers. If we can get the USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] past the finish line that would also be a positive sign."

Ultimately rural loyalty to Trump will be decided next November. In the meantime, Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer advises farmers and ranchers to think about how to rebuild their overseas relationships damaged in the trade war.

"Once you start buying from someone else, somewhere else, you start to develop a relation with someone else. We’re gonna have to fight to get that back. We're gonna have to be funding trade missions and sending our family farmers to meet face-to-face with these customers of ours around the world and try to regain the trust we once had so we can rebuild our markets."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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