‘The worst drought we’ve ever had:’ Farmers, ranchers across the state struggle with historic dry spell

‘The worst drought we’ve ever had:’ Farmers, ranchers across the state struggle with historic dry spell

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Lewis Kendall

Fred Wacker has been in the cattle business his whole life, more than 40 years of which he has spent ranching on land outside Miles City.

As a third-generation rancher, Wacker has seen a lot, including the historic downturn the state’s agriculture sector suffered in the 1980s. But the exceedingly dry conditions that are currently decimating crop yields across Montana are unlike anything the 65-year-old has experienced.

“This is the worst drought we’ve ever had,” Wacker said.

As of late August, the eastern half of the state was considered under extreme or exceptional drought, with some areas recording their lowest rainfall totals in more than a century. In mid-June, Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order declaring a drought emergency for 19 counties, as well as the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.

The weather has been a punch to the gut for Montana farmers and ranchers following a year that saw earnings drop precipitously.

Farm earnings across the state plummeted from $730 million in 2015 to just over $210 million in 2016, the lowest level since 2006, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Part of the issue was that 2016 was too good for too many producers. Many wheat farmers across the U.S. and around the world experienced bumper yields, driving prices down near historic lows. Excessive rainfall in Montana also affected the amount of protein in the crop, making it harder to sell in both regional and foreign markets.

This summer, Tony Fast said he’s been lucky to harvest one-tenth of what he got last year.

Fast works roughly 10,000 acres on a plot of land in Valley County in northern Montana, where his family has farmed for more than 100 years. When he started planting his durum wheat, canola and peas in early April, Fast said the conditions, while a little soggy, were pretty normal.

But then, he said, “the rains never came.”

“We still had hope through all of June, but it never materialized.”

In Glasgow, near Fast’s farm, less than an inch and a half of rain fell between May and August — the primary months for crop growth — nearly 5 inches less than normal.

By last month, Fast was cutting his losses. He destroyed 1,300 acres of wheat and plans to use his farm insurance to cover what he can.

The 32-year-old isn’t alone. As part of a statewide survey produced in response to the severe drought, almost three-quarters of producers from Daniels to Beaverhead counties said they were experiencing crop losses due to dry conditions.

“The speed at which this drought hit is unprecedented in my 40 years in the area,” wrote one farmer.

Ranchers, too, are feeling the effects of the extreme weather. Although cattle prices have stayed relatively stable, Wacker, who serves on the board of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said he expects Montana herds to drop in value.

Dry conditions are a one-two punch for ranchers, as not only does drought eliminate good forage for cattle, making them thinner and less valuable, but it also means that owners have to purchase supplemental roughage, often at an inflated price.

“You can stand a down market, but you can’t stand drought,” Wacker said. “When you get to fighting drought, it just takes so much money.”

A particularly dry year like this one could mean that cattle end up weighing 50 pounds less than average, cutting roughly $100 off their sale price, which, when you’re talking on the order of hundreds or thousands of animals per ranch, makes a huge impact, Wacker said.

“Every year (with drought) the expenses get higher and cattle are going to come off lighter,” he said.

A recent agreement between the U.S. and China to reopen beef trade for the first time in more than a decade has offered a bit of a bump for American ranchers, said Mike Honeycutt, executive office for the Montana Board of Livestock.

But the current administration’s general attitude toward international trade agreements has acted as a damper on many commodity markets, Honeycutt added.

“Those kinds of things have created a lot of uncertainty over U.S. exports,” he said. “You put all that together and it gives you the recipe for that decline of farm earnings.”

Growing up in a family of farmers, Fast always knew that he would follow in their footsteps. But he worries that this year’s harsh conditions will exacerbate another worrying trend: the exodus of producers from an agricultural industry that represents the largest economic driver in the state.

Between 1960 and 2014, 18 counties in Montana — mostly in the eastern part of the state — lost at least 40 percent of their farmers and ranchers.

Several years ago, Fast purchased his neighbor’s farmland after the couple decided to get out of ag and move to Billings. And if the state sees another dry year like this one, more folks will be following suit, Fast said.

“There’s just less of us out here to farm the land available,” he said. “Not every farm has a next generation coming back.”

Wacker added that younger producers are often the primary casualties of downturns, a blow for an industry that already struggles to draw and retain youth. The average age of farmers in Gallatin County is 58.

“With all the modern equipment and technology, one man with good equipment can do what 10 men could do 35 years ago. But what happens is it takes a lot of people out of agriculture,” Wacker said. “The nation is only as strong as its ability to produce food, and we need to take a hard look at putting systems in place that attract people.”

After a roller-coaster two years, the question now for producers across the state is what’s going to come next.

As far as the drought goes, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight, said Eric Sommer, state statistician for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“At this point, any moisture is going to be for next year’s crops,” Sommer said. “Producers are going to have to make some hard choices here in the next few weeks.”

And while this year’s dry conditions may be a one-off, longer term trends are signalling further trouble for both farmers and ranchers.

According to a 2016 report prepared for the Montana Farmers Union, by the middle of the century the effects of climate change are projected to reduce cattle and grain production in Montana by 20 and 25 percent, respectively, resulting in a loss of 25,000 jobs and $736 million in earnings.

But for Fast, the concerns are more immediate: which rotation crop to plant in order to preserve the most moisture in the soil, monitoring the price of canola, lentils and wheat, and generally doing what he can to make the best out of a terrible season.

“There’s no such thing as climate change, it’s just weather,” he said. “There are hot years and cold years and dry years and wet years. There’s no normal.”

Like the weather, the markets for commodities are volatile, said George Haynes, professor and extension specialist at Montana State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, which makes it difficult to predict one year or one month down the road.

“Not only are we in a low price market, now we’re up against pretty substantial production issues,” Haynes said. “But agricultural markets can turn on a dime. You can have a drought in some major production area, and all of a sudden it will change.”

Sometimes, Fast said, there’s nothing to do but try to weather the storm and live to farm another season.

“It’s just one of those things, you hunker down and see what next year brings,” he said. “Farming in Montana, there’s always next year.”