Farmers and Ranchers Cope With Extreme Weather

By Beacon Staff

While farmers and ranchers throughout most of Montana are dealing with fire and dry conditions, Northwest Montana agriculturalists are facing the entirely opposite dilemma: lots of moisture and the undesirables that come with it.

A year after battling stripe rust, a fungal disease exacerbated by damp weather, Flathead Valley farmers are grappling with an infestation of orange wheat blossom midges. And stripe rust is back too.

In 2006, the destructive midges emphatically announced their presence in the Flathead by wreaking havoc on wheat crops. Spring wheat fields that would have normally produced 80 to 90 bushels per acre produced fewer than two in some cases.

Though the pests have been an annual threat for Flathead farmers since 2006, this year they appear to be proliferating at a rapid clip, which CHS Kalispell General Manager Mark Lalum said is largely the result of the region’s heavy moisture. June brought heavy thunderstorms and record rainfall to Northwest Montana.

“Because of the really wet spring, it looks like this hatch is going to be big,” Lalum said last week.

Planes have been conducting aerial crop-dusting flights to kill the midges, with the flights timed to occur when both the flies and crops are at certain maturity levels. The insecticide has the added benefit of killing mosquitoes. Lalum recommends people stay out of the fields for 24 hours after the spray.

“We have a very small window of opportunity,” Lalum said. “Timing is critical.”

The combination of wet ground and warm temperatures has created ideal humidity levels for stripe rust, Lalum said, giving Flathead farmers a second major threat to combat.

“We are seeing some pretty strong outbreaks of stripe rust right now,” Lalum said. “It is a problem.”

Meanwhile, fires have ravaged other parts of the state, scorching grazing land and burning down hundreds of power line poles, according to the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. Other vital pieces of infrastructure, such as fences and buildings, have been destroyed by the flames.

“Because of the infrastructure, including power, being decimated by fire, many people who rely on electrical pumps for stock tanks now have thirsty cattle,” Bob Hanson, president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.

“The equation of no grass and no water leads to people having to sell their cattle now, which is certainly bad for agriculture any way you look at it.”

The Farm Bureau is urging “neighbors to help neighbors,” directing people with something to offer – hay, feed, fence posts, generators – to contact the state Department of Agriculture to be included in its “Hay Hotline.”

In the Flathead, Lalum said there is a flipside to the heavy moisture – if the crops survive, they are shaping up to be bountiful.

“The crop these farmers are looking at is a beautiful crop and we don’t want to lose it,” Lalum said. “They could have some very, very good yields.”

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