Carbon County Democrats

Thursday, February 11, 2021

“Farcher,” a word coined for a crop and livestock producer by Rhonda Hergenrider’s 12-year-old daughter, Mandy, is a challenging role.

Herdenrider, a farm and ranch producer in the Carbon County’s Clarks Fork Vallley, and Ben Peterson, a farmer rancher outside of Judith Gap, recently spoke on agricultural issues to the Carbon County Democrats during their monthly meeting by Zoom.

Both speakers attested to the effect of regulations imposed on the ag industry and the reasons why agricultural production cannot exist without federal subsidies.

Hergenrider is current president of the Carbon Stillwater Counties Farm Bureau, while Peterson is a member of the Montana Farmers Union, both long-term agricultural organizations with many similar goals, predominantly engaging their constituents to support and preserve agriculture.  Peterson also serves on the the state Democrats executive board.

Hergenrider, whose family raises sugar beets, malt barley, cattle, sheep and pigs, is a founding member and secretary of the the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, which allows local producers to serve local markets directly, avoiding the need for middlemen and allowing more what Peterson termed “fair and equitable” return for ag products.

“If we could actually get fair and equitable prices for our products,” Peterson attested, “there wouldn’t be a need for subsidies” such as federal support for crop insurance that is necessary to protect against the vagaries of yearly weather events and other influences on world and local markets.  Crop insurance is paid for through “an expensive cost-share arrangement,” says Hergenrider.  Without it, “food costs would go up, and only farms who can self-insure would survive.  More food would be imported.”  Smaller family farmers would be hit the hardest, she said, urging continued support for this federal program.

Peterson noted that since the 1970’s, federal agricultural policy has created the need for subsidies.  “It’s been more important for food to be cheap than profitable for the producer,” he said.

Commodity prices are affected by access to markets, basic supply and demand, the world economy, larger weather events, and favorable trade agreements, said Hergenrider.  She, in contrast to Peterson, did not believe that the last federal administration’s tariffs and trade wars negatively affected her business.  The last administration, she said, “was good to Montana agriculture,” particularly providing tax cuts. Peterson, on the other hand, said he lost his entire wool contracts due to the tariffs, and incurred additional expenses and a postponed shipping schedule in 2020 due to the disruption of the cattle market by COVID-19 affecting workers and slowing production in packing plants.

Farming and ranching is affected by government regulations “or lack thereof,” as Peterson noted with the fact that four beef packers control “80 to 90 percent of the market” and set the price for beef at the grocery stores while controlling the price producers get for the product.  Peterson said that while ranchers are seriously concerned with this status, this issue was overcome by others during the 2020 election cycle, and the beef industry continues to face this status.  Efforts are being made to provide local processing as an alternative, with Farmers Union starting a slaughter facility in Havre, where MSU Northern has started a program to train livestock processors.  Miles City Community College also has training programs.  Starting a new processing plant involves hard, dirty work, noted Hergenrider, and substantial financial investment.

Regulations can add to costs, said Hergenrider, if, for instance, they prevent oil exploration and result in additional costs to purchasers of fuel, or limit the hours a trucker can drive when livestock needs to get to market timely.  

Seed, fertilizer and fuel “are a very big deal,” noted Hergenrider, leading to comments on using their own seeds and GMO (genetically-modified organisms), a topic left for another time.  Hergenrider noted that sugar beet seeds would take two years to use, requiring additional storage and processes.  She relies on companies’ and university research to assure quality and viability of seeds.

Peterson pointed out that “corporate consolidation” has resulted in what he termed “anti-competitive practices,” with four foreign companies alone controlling feed, chemicals and fertilizer. 

“Farmers and ranchers are the only group who cannot pass on our costs to the consumer,” Hergenrider said, with “the only exception being direct to consumer sales” such as farmers markets and the Food Hub.  “This works if you’re close to those markets,” noted Peterson, and those markets have limited sales volume, a factor that affects the viability of organic farming as well.  “Organic farming is not profitable,” said Peterson, citing lack of volume of product, taking on more risk of crop failure, and the availability of local markets.  Many farmers are using a hybrid of organic and non-organic processes, he said.

Peterson felt a “grown in Montana” label would help producers, with it being proven that “if you can prove where you product comes from, it raises buyers’ interest to buy that product and possible pay more for it.”  He urged promotion of the Country of Original Labelling (COOL) bills currently being reintroduced as LC 0371 and LC 3172 in the Montana legislature.  “USDA labeling does not mean produced in the U.S.; it only means it has passed USDA specs.”

Both spoke about the difficulties of finding good help.  The work’s demanding, said Hergenrider.  “It requires the ability to do a variety of tasks, using your mind, and being out in harsh elements,” she said.  Farmers compete with higher-paying jobs with oil and gas industries mining, and seasonal demands limit the availability of, for instance, student workers.  She spoke against a higher minimum wage, which would make it difficult for farmers and ranchers to afford to hire help.  Peterson, on the other hand, noted that even a minimum wage of $15 an hour wouldn’t fill the need for local hired help, who aren’t available or willing to work as needed.  Both have hired immigrant laborers who have been available and perform the work needed.

Both spoke to whether “death taxes,” inheritance taxes, were a worry to farmers and ranchers.  “Legacy planning is important,” noted Hergenrider.  Smaller producers are not affected by the $5 million exemption, they noted, but large “family” corporations can also benefit by splitting ownership with folks “who’ve never worked the soil and who’ve never ridden a tractor,” said Peterson. 

The speakers noted other issues involving water rights, particularly “exempt wells” that can affect farmers’ water, and topsoil problems like acidification from artificial fertilizers.  

Hergenrider noted that farmers and ranchers “wear many hats” as businessmen, scientists, mechanics, bookkeeper, veterinarians, nutritionists, and family and community members.  “When you walk out the door, you’re at work,” she noted, saying that long hours and financial woes can create high stress. “Failing at farming means failing at life, fear of disappointing ancestors,” she said.  “Its a heavy burden to bear.”

“I’m a third-generation rancher,” said Peterson.  “I don’t want to be the last generation.” 

Both welcomed interest and support of legislation that benefits farmers and ranchers.

Other business at the meeting included announcing Russel Lord, former MSU Billings professor, as the group’s new vice president, and the group’s Action Alert that informs members to act on pending legislation.  Hope Smith also reported that postcards are available to support the final adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that was introduced in 1923; the required 38th state, Virginia, adopted it last year.  Action led by Montana Sen. Jon Tester is still required in the U.S. Senate.

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