John Youngberg has a pretty short list of what he hopes the Department of Agriculture will focus on during Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte's tenure: more support of large, commercial scale agriculture and less emphasis on crops sold locally on a folding table.
The issues involving locally produced agriculture are important, but it's a small percentage of Montana's ag economy, said Youngberg, director of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. “We need some folks who are going to step up for commercial ag, the guys who are raising the grain and cattle.”
The agriculture transition advisory committee announced by Gianforte this week has a strong emphasis on commercial agriculture. The members include: Lola Raska, outgoing vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association; Fred Wacker, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association; Jim Steinbeisser, the group’s first vice president; John Helle, the Montana Woolgrowers Association president and founder of Duckworth Wool, a clothing company; Nicole Rolf, the Montana Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs; and Dean Folkvord, founder of Wheat Montana Farms and Bread, Montana’s most high-profile retail agriculture brand.
The groups want state support in some of commercial agriculture’s hardest fights, Youngberg said. The groups' shipping disputes with BNSF railroad, for example, or their advocacy of multilateral trade deals, like the ill-fated Trans Pacific Partnership, was important to beef and wheat sales in the Asian Pacific and didn’t receive strong advocacy from state government.
It’s a Republican deck. Missing from the list is representation from the left-leaning Montana Farmers Union, which was the source for a state ag director for Democratic governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock. The former governor’s brother, Walt Schweitzer, became president of Montana Farmers Union last year.
The non-profit groups represented on the committee are non-partisan, but the deep red election results in Montana’s rural farm counties tell the story. Lesley Robinson of Phillips County is on the committee. Robinson is a rancher, former county commissioner and Gianforte’s 2016 running mate for the governor’s office. Phillips County voted 80% for Gianforte, 17% for Democrat Mike Cooney and 2% for Libertarian Lyman Bishop.
For the last decade, Phillips County ranchers have protested the development of a large buffalo commons, the American Prairie Reserve, which has the been developed on land previously occupied by cattle. And they associate that transformation with Democrats. This is also Upper Missouri River Country, not far from the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument designated by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
There are always concerns about another national monument designation and an insistence the state oppose such a move. Fergus County, where the 149-mile Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is located, went 72% for Gianforte.
Steinbeisser with Montana Stockgrowers hails from Richland County, which went 78% for Gianforte. In his area, farmers have been in a prolonged battle with the federal government concerning a canal intake on a portion of the lower Yellowstone River that happens to be the breeding ground of the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species from the prehistoric era.
The list also includes Megan Schroyer, Montana president of Northwest Farm Credit Services and Bob Quinn, an organic farmer who founded Montana Flour and Grains and is probably best known for his ancient grain business Kamut International. A Republican, Quinn has been outspoken about the dangers glyphosate-resistant products pose to organic crops that lose organic status if they contain traces of the weed killer as it proliferates. Quinn, who farms near Big Sandy, has an organic farmer of some fame raising grain from his business, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat.
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