I feel a bit guilty the morning I arrive at the Christ Ranch near Skalkaho Creek just south of Hamilton. While I’d slept until sunup, Bob Christ has been up since well before dawn. After two nights of weaning calves (“Always on the dry side of the full moon,” Bob advises), a herd broke loose, and shortly after 2 a.m. his phone started ringing off the hook with reports of cows wandering across Highway 93. Fortunately for Christ (rhymes with “fist”) it was his neighbor’s cattle and not his own. Still, when you’re a rancher and a minor calamity strikes your neighbor, you help round up his cows, and next time he’ll help round up yours.
We sit down at the kitchen table while Bob’s wife, Willie, fills his thermos with coffee black as midnight that will keep him running until well after dark.
“I remember when we used to run 200 head down the road,” Christ recalls. “We’d have as many cowboys as cows.”
Just then, a dusty beige pickup pulls into the driveway loaded with five tons of grain.
“God, he wasn’t supposed to be here until after dinner,” Christ says. None of his hired hands are around to help unload the truck. “Well, he’s just gonna have to wait. You see why all farmers are going gray or bald? If the stress isn’t turning us gray, we’re pulling it out ourselves.” Then he ducks outside.
“Now there’s a prime example right here,” Christ says upon returning. “He’s feeding cattle. He should be using his own grain, but he called me the other day and he’s got to sell the grain because he’s got to have money. He can’t afford to feed his cattle with his own grain.”
These days, you have to respect the family farmer or rancher who can honestly call what he or she does a “business.” Statistically, the average Montana farmer or rancher earns only about 11 percent of his income from the farm itself; more than 25 percent of them spend at least 200 days each year working off their farms just to make ends meet. In 1997, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly four out of 10 Montana farms sold less than $10,000 worth of goods, with about one-fifth of them recording annual sales of less than $2,500.
And there is more truth to Christ’s comment about balding and graying farmers than meets the eye. In a job that requires strength, stamina, and the ability to put in 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, the average Montana farmer is 58-years-old. Increasingly, young people cannot afford to go into farming.
“I have three sons,” Bob, 72, tells me. “They’d love to ranch. But there’s just no money in it.”
As one farmer joked bitterly, agriculture has become a form of child abuse: You bequeath your troubles to your children. Little wonder, then, that the number one cause of death among farmers and ranchers last year was suicide. Sociologists speculate that at least half of the deaths caused by machinery each years are intentional, by farmers who want to ensure that their families collect their life insurance.
If this story sounds familiar, it should. The plight of Montana’s farmers and ranchers is hardly new. Beginning with the farm crisis of the early 1980s and the establishment of Farm-Aid, the media have been singing the swan song of the American farmer for years, how the disappearance of the family farm has rent the social and economic fabric of thousands of rural communities nationwide, spelling the disappearance not only of a complete sector of our economy, but an entire American way of life.
But while many of us have become desensitized to—if not tacitly acceptant of—the imminent demise of Montana’s farmers and ranchers, it’s fair to ask, is there anything new about the farmers’ plight that might move us to action?
Well, there is the speed at which changes are occurring. Says Ken Maki, president of the Montana Farmers Union and someone who speaks with the singular direction of a man who drives a tractor all day, “These are the worst economic times for Montana farmers since the Great Depression.”
Others in Montana’s ag community agree that if current trends continue unabated, we will likely see the end of the independent farmer and rancher within our lifetimes. The most dire forecasts predict the end of all independent agriculture in this country within the next 10 years.
Even more daunting may be the prospects for reversing this trend. And yet, to those who call farming and ranching not just their job but their way of life, what is at stake is more than just farms, ranches and the communities—like Missoula—that rely upon agricultural dollars for their survival, but also the security of our country’s food supply, and the future of our nation as a whole.
Death by Numbers
Regardless of the size of the farm or the commodity being raised, all farming and ranching operates according to a very simple mathematical formula: How much does it cost to raise a product, and how much is the farmer paid to bring that product to market? Eventually, a farmer falls below the break-even point, where the cost of production is higher than what the product is sold for, and it becomes cheaper not to farm, or to simply sell off the land. Increasingly, that is the scenario unfolding on scores of Montana’s family farms.
“One of the most frustrating parts is that this is the first time in history when the rest of the nation has been on a roll, and agriculture isn’t,” says Gary Tavenner, executive director of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) for Missoula and Mineral counties. “During the Great Depression, agriculture was in the pits, but so was everything else.”
Tavenner administers programs set up through the USDA that provide emergency and disaster relief to Montana’s farming communities. FSA is also what he calls “a lender of last resort” for farmers who no longer have the credit or collateral to secure loans from other financial institutions. Last year the number of FSA agriculture loans increased 60 percent over the previous year alone.
“One economic indicator you won’t find anywhere is the attitude that so much of the ag community has right now: How can we work so hard and still not benefit from a strong economy?” says Tavenner.
That question was answered last month when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman testified before the House Committee on Agriculture. Citing USDA estimates, Glickman predicted that the average corn crop price in 1999 will be the lowest since 1987. Cattle prices, which have rebounded somewhat from last year, are still expected to be six percent lower than their five-year average. And wheat prices are expected to be 31 percent below their five-year average.
“My wife and I have been married 50 years next year,” Christ tells me. “When we got married, I sold wheat for two cents per bushel more than I did this fall. Believe it or not.”
In some respects, Montana producers have fared somewhat better than other regions of the country. In the past two years this state has been spared some of the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath, including last year’s unduly harsh winter, this summer’s severe drought and the major flooding that has inundated the East Coast. But it doesn’t require something as dramatic as Hurricane Floyd to upend the average Montana family farm or ranch. Like a slow but interminable wind that carries away precious top soil, record low prices and four years of a failed national farm policy are driving thousands of Montana’s farmers toward a rapid slide into insolvency.
Buying the Farm
It’s shortly after noon on a clear and sunny Tuesday in late September. The gravel parking lot at the Missoula Livestock Exchange just west of town is lined with row after row of ranch trucks parked front-grill to trailer-door. Sporting license plates that proudly proclaim “ANGUS” and “DD RANCH,” these rigs have traveled from as far away as Iowa, Nebraska and Texas to take home what is arguably one of Montana’s most respected commodities: black angus cattle.
This afternoon, ranchers, farmers and buyers from large feed lots across the region are in town for the total dispersion of the Trexler Angus Ranch, belonging to Corvallis ranchers Larry and Peggy Trexler. Forced to the end of their financial rope after operating for five years in the red, the Trexlers are auctioning off nearly their entire herd, about 329 head of cattle, most of which they and their two children raised from calves.
“When you don’t have enough collateral to cover your debt, you know you’re in trouble,” Peggy tells me outside the auction house. At picnic tables nearby, Larry’s mom and a few family friends are clearing away the remnants of a lunch laid out for the hungry buyers: Bitterroot apples, cookies, soda, chips and—of course—barbecued beef sandwiches. As if in defiance of the almost funereal proceedings underway inside, this is rural hospitality at its finest.
“In the past five years we’ve paid to do this,” Peggy says of ranching. “It’s cost us money. But you can only do that for so long. When you look at what a pickup costs now compared to the ’70s, and the feed prices, the fertilizer, the tractors. Anytime we get a tractor fixed it costs at least a thousand dollars. And irrigation and sprinklers. It just goes on and on and on.”
Compounding the Trexler’s woes has been the voracious appetite for land in the Bitterroot Valley, where grazing and cropland has become more valuable when it’s sold to make way for subdivisions, strip malls and golf courses. In counties like Ravalli and Flathead, where land can go for $10,000 or more an acre, farmland is disappearing at the dizzying rate of about 1.4 acres per hour.
Years ago, Peggy tells me, the 1,000 or so acres they needed for running cattle could be leased from two or three different owners. This year, in their losing race against suburban sprawl, the Trexlers were leasing as many as 13 different plots in the valley.
“A lot of people think all ranchers do is ride on their horses and check their cows and eat out in the field and don’t do anything else,” says Peggy. “But Larry’s out at daylight every day and doesn’t come in until after dark. It’s really sad, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s all I’ve ever known. What better life can you have?”
Soon, Peggy’s 18-year-old daughter, Karri, comes outside to update her mother on how the auction is going.
“So far it’s going pretty good,” Peggy relates to me. “But we’ve got some 300 head to sell, and it can get pretty cheap toward the end. It depends on how the buyers hold out.”
Karri has her own financial interest in the outcome of the auction as well: five head of cattle that were a gift from her parents, her “college money” that she hopes will cover the cost of cosmetology school next year. Though she would have liked to stay in ranching, she says, having seen what her parents have been through, Karri is ready to try her hand as a nail technician.
“Mom and Dad are hoping to get back into it,” Karri tells me, “depending upon what cattle prices do, of course.”
These days such youthful optimism is a scarce commodity in rural Montana. Certainly none of it is visible in Larry Trexler’s face, who sits stoically beside the auctioneer, watching years of hard labor sold off in a single afternoon.
Ironically, the livestock auction may be the last vestige of a free and competitive marketplace that the average Montana farmer or rancher ever sees.
“We have three large corporations that control over 80 percent of the slaughter of American beef,” Christ tells me. “We like to talk about free enterprise. There’s no free enterprise anymore.”
“All agricultural markets can now be termed dysfunctional,” says Gilles Stockton, a third-generation sheep and cattle rancher in Grassrange whose grandfather came to Montana as a homesteader during the last great cattle drive. “There are no supply-demand relationships anymore between the customer and the producer. It’s completely severed.”
In other words, the price we pay at the checkout stand bears little relationship to the cost to the farmer or rancher to raise that product. When the farmer takes his product to market, be it the local grain elevator, the nearest feed lot or the slaughterhouse, in most cases he has but two choices: either sell that product at the asking price of the corporation that operates as a virtual monopoly, or hold onto it and hope that the price is higher when he returns next week.
Occasionally, a farmer can exercise a third option and drive his produce or livestock 100, 200 or even 500 miles down the road and try to get a better price at the next grain elevator or feed lot. But more times than not, that market is run by the same corporation that operates in his hometown, and whatever slight profit he might see is more than offset by the cost of transporting the goods in the first place.
Which leads to yet another monopoly that Montana producers face: only one railroad that serves the entire state. As a result, according to the Alliance for Railway Competition, Montana growers pay among the highest rail rates in the nation. Grain producers in Nebraska can ship their grain to Portland for less than it costs Montana farmers. The reason: Nebraska is served by two railroads.
“It’s corporate communism, plain and simple,” Stockton says bluntly.
But Stockton isn’t the only one to speak about America’s food industry in such Orwellian terms.
This February, Dr. William Heffernan of the University of Missouri issued a report to the National Farmers Union, in which he asserts that a handful of corporate “food clusters” are consolidating their control over our entire food supply, “from farm gate to dinner plate.” Multinationals like Cargill, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland, he points out, have been aggressively pursuing biotechnology like genetically modified organisms and the recently abandoned “terminator genes” that are turning farming from a tradition into a technology. As Heffernan puts it, “He who controls the intellectual property rights controls the gene pool.”
“Within 10 years there will be virtually no independent agriculture of any kind in this country,” Stockton predicts. “A lot of times this gets reported in the media as a farm crisis. This is a food crisis. It’s about the safety and security of your food.”
“People are beginning to realize the velocity that change is coming now. It’s incredible,” says Dale Phau of the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America. Phau is neither a farmer nor a rancher, but a small business owner in Lewistown who has seen how the current farm crisis has had a ripple effect not only on other businesses in his community, but across the state and around the country.
“In many places throughout the Midwest there are virtually no communities of our size left,” says Phau. “It’s important that consumers realize that Missoula counts on those small rural towns that are still agriculture-oriented. And as their spending dollars diminish, at some point it will catch Missoula like a trip wire. At some point in time you’re going to stumble.”
Ploughing Under the Old Ways
“I think that if the whole issue of a fair price were resolved, the rest of our problems would take care of themselves,” says Helen Waller, a farmer from Circle, Mont., and an activist with the Northern Plains Resource Council. “No business can survive selling its product at less than the cost of production.”
Waller was in Washington, D.C. last month with a delegation of Montana farmers and ranchers for the National Farm-Aid rally and concert, and met with White House Chief of Staff John Podesta about revisiting the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. Dubbed by many in the agricultural community the “Freedom to Fail” Act, the law effectively eliminated the social safety nets that farmers had relied on for years to keep the prices of their commodities above the cost of production.
“We don’t want to go back to the warmed-over policies of the past that were written by and for the grain cartel,” says Waller, about federal farm subsidies that used to pay farmers not to farm their land. “I prefer to get my money from the marketplace. I think it’s wrong to transfer the cost to the taxpayer.”
Already, the seeds of change are in the air. While in Washington, Waller also met with Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who has agreed to open hearing on Freedom to Farm in January.
Moreover, next month’s meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle will undoubtedly be a seminal moment in coalition building, uniting national farming and ranching advocates with those in labor, the environmental movement, the religious community and other human rights activists.
But not all the change must come from above. Waller, Christ and Phau all agree that farmers themselves must be willing to abandon some of their outdated ways of doing business.
“If we want a better price for our commodities, then we have to discipline ourselves to some kind of supply management,” says Waller. “We cannot expect to be paid for as much as we can grow. This is not a very good conservation position, to take from the land whatever it will give.”
Drawing on farmers’ long heritage as land stewards, FSA’s Tavenner points out that Montana farmers can take advantage of the Conservation Reserve Program, in which the federal government leases farmland and takes it out of agricultural production in order to preserve topsoil, maintain open spaces, and promote greater wildlife habitat.
Others suggest that farmers become more innovative in how they market their commodity. For example, one of Montana’s great agricultural success stories has been Wheat Montana, a family-owned business based in Three Forks that nine years ago turned a moderately-sized wheat farm into a booming nationwide enterprise with $110 million in annual sales.
Wheat Montana uses the simple concept of adding value to their wheat by marketing their grains and flours as specialty items to gourmet bakeries and supermarkets nationwide. Wheat Montana also sells a wide range of breads, rolls, bagels and even sandwiches, all of which are marketed under the label of a Montana-owned family business that cares for the land, its employees and the quality of their products.
Waller adds that Montana’s farmers need to pay better attention to what consumers are saying, both here and abroad, regarding the use of pesticides, growth hormones, and genetic engineering in our food.
Finally, consumers need to become more informed about where their food comes from and exactly what is going into it. New labeling laws could help buyers understand such factors as the country of origin, the use of growth hormones, pesticides, irradiation, and genetic engineering when shopping for food. And of course, Waller adds, food consumers are strongly encouraged to support organic and local growers.
“We’ve got to speak out loud and clear, in unison, the consumer and the producer,” says Waller. “Otherwise the people who are on the land right now will be reduced to tractor drivers, and decisions will be made in corporate board rooms miles away from the fields.”
“Will the big corporations keep the communities going, the schools, the churches?” asks Willie Christ. “Do they have a benevolent spirit like the rest of us do for our neighbors and our community?”
And yet, with so many obstacles that remain, one wonders if Montana’s most endangered species, the family farmer and rancher, will survive long into the next millennium. When, as Bob Christ points out, many of our nation’s schoolchildren think that milk comes from a plastic jug and not a cow, how can we expect their parents to voice outrage over terminator genes or imported produce containing banned pesticides?
“My future as a farmer is kind of irrelevant,” says Stockton. “I’m going to make out one way or the other. The issue is the future of this country.”
Dena Hoff, vice chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, puts it in even more dire terms. “When agriculture goes, so goes the country,” she says. “Look at ancient Rome, or the former Soviet Union. Any country that has destroyed its own means of agriculture has perished. Why should we be any different?”