Ground level 

The Uprising

Sinking ag prices have driven many Montana farmers out of business. Ron Jensen refuses to go quietly.

Ron Jensen has worked his farm outside Sweetgrass, a small Eastern Montana settlement, since 1974. On glacier-flattened land on Canada's doorstep, he grows barley, malt and durum, the grain that's made into semolina flour and then pasta.

"Every time you eat a noodle, think of me," Jensen says.

Twenty-four years' experience probably makes Ron Jensen a pretty good durum farmer, but it leaves him an unlikely candidate to lead a revolt against the pell-mell advance of global capitalism. And yet Jensen is in fact the leader, although he has no official title, of a peaceful mass movement of civil disobedience. Carried out by farmers and ranchers scattered all along the vast northern frontier of the United States, this campaign has disrupted trade between two of the world's biggest countries, rattled the cages of American and Canadian bureaucrats, forced political leaders to the negotiating table and won allies in statehouses and the U.S. Senate.

Using farm trucks and farmers to periodically blockade border crossings and keep Canadian products out of the U.S. was Jensen's idea. The 50-year-old Vietnam vet boasting nothing more lofty than a high school diploma has become a regular source for the Washington Post, USA Today and network television news. With farm prices tanking catastrophically, neighboring growers going under and the small downtowns of Eastern Montana asphyxiating, he figures he had to do something.

"In Toole County we're gonna lose 20 percent of the producers in the next year," Jensen says. "Now take that nationally. And we're only 1.4 percent of the U.S. population to begin with. Can we afford to lose another 20 percent? People say, well, the folks going under are inefficient producers. That's bunk. We lost all those people back in the '70s and '80s. What we have left is the cream of the crop, and now we're gonna lose that too."

Agriculture is Montana's largest industry, making the meltdown in ag markets-some commodities selling at prices lower than those 50 years ago-of immediate concern across the state. In Missoula County and the Bitterroot Valley, the number of ag operations has declined for 20 years, according to Jerry Marks of the Missoula County Extension Office. In the state's fashionable west, farmers and ranchers can usually sell land to developers, Marks says. In the sparsely populated, isolated east, that's not always possible.

Jensen contends that prices are being driven down by an influx of imported products, largely Canadian grain and livestock flooding southward in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Starting in 1994, Jensen and other Sweetgrass-area farmers began blockading local grain elevators that were filling up with Canadian wheat, leaving American growers with nowhere to store their product.

Then, Jensen and his allies decided to shut down the border. Strategically timed blockades kept Canadian agriculture products, broadly defined by Jensen as anything grown in the ground, out of the United States. During the most recent demonstration on December 6 and 7, while as many as 240 farmers blocked the Sweetgrass checkpoint, their comrades did likewise in North Dakota and Minnesota.

That blockade went on as planned despite a last-minute agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments to reduce restrictions on American grain headed north. "I told this reporter from the CBC when the agreement went through that the planes were in the air and I couldn't call 'em back," Jensen says.

Jensen waxes eloquent on the subject of what they're trying to stop.

He points to the 1.6 to 1.8 million metric tons of grain likely to be imported from Canada this year. "That's more than a half-million bushels we don't need," he says indignantly. "Why in the world (would you) import a product you have in abundance at home? Why are 2.5 million head of cattle going to come down from Canada this year? Why are hogs coming out of Canada like you wouldn't believe?"

Jensen believes Canada is dumping grain and livestock into the U.S. market illegally, that the U.S. government should haul the Canadians before the World Trade Organization and that NAFTA has produced little but sorrow for American farmers. Canadian officials bristle at these suggestions.

"They have no basis for these claims," says Deanna Allen of the Canadian Wheat Board, the brokering agency that controls Canadian grain shipments. "We take serious offense to the allegation that we're breaking the law. Every single shipment that goes over the border has a buyer lined up on the other side. It's dictated solely by consumer demand. If it weren't, that would be dumping and the U.S. would take us before the WTO. Are they doing that? No. We've been under investigation in the past and been given an absolutely clean bill of health every time."

Jensen counters that Canadian grain is priced 15 to 20 percent below U.S. grain, a bargain made possible by Canadian protectionism and government subsidies. "The Canadian Wheat Board doesn't worry at all about making a profit," he says. "Their job is to move grain and that's it, no matter what."

Despite the indignation that Jensen's ad hoc movement sparks in Canadian officials, there's reason to believe the farmers' disruptions of border trade are paying political dividends. Last week, Governor Marc Racicot met with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein in Helena. The pair announced a summit of farm leaders from both sides of the border, planned for sometime in 1999. Jensen says the blockades brought them together, as well as forcing what he calls minor concessions from Canada in the most recent round of trade talks and prying emergency aid out of the U.S. government.

"We're making strides," Jensen says. "We've got the trade people wanting to talk to us now, which otherwise never would have happened. Make no mistake, the Canadians would have never said word one about changing their export policies and the U.S. government would have never done a thing about it if it weren't for the border blockades and all the other noise we've made.

"Every one of these blockades has been peaceful," he adds with pride. "Read a little Martin Luther King and you figure out how to do it. Still, border blockades are like bullets in a gun. You only have so many to use and you have to use them right."

He says he has no doubt, however, that he and his neighbors-not to mention like-minded people across the North-will seal the border again.

"With all this free trade, it hasn't helped one real person that I know of," he says. "There are a lot of multinational corporations that are making a lot of money, but if you can't help the common person who's out working the land, what's the point?"

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