Ag Rebounds After 2015’s Drought-filled Season

Local harvests reaping "above average" yields as production, employment increase across state

By Molly Priddy
Hay harvest in a field east of Kalispell. Beacon File Photo

Agriculture in Montana looks to be back on the right track after last year’s rough market and drought-ridden growing season, the state reported, and local farmers are finding more success in their harvests than last year.

“We’ve experienced more volatility in the past five years than we have in the past several decades,” Mountain West Co-op agronomy division manager Andy Lybeck said.

Last summer was hot and dry in the Flathead, leaving local dry-land farmers – meaning those who don’t irrigate their fields – with harvests roughly half of their usual bounty. The heat hindered grain production, and grain prices have been low since 2014.

This summer’s cooler, wetter weather helped most of the agricultural efforts here in the Flathead, Lybeck said, with a few exceptions when it came to more extreme weather cases. Overall, most areas of the local market – peas, canola, wheat, and hay – saw increases over last year, he said.

“It’s not a record by any means, but certainly above average,” Lybeck said. “It looks like we really rebounded from last year, being one of the poorest years. It seems like we have quite a lot of hay running around the valley.”

A frost on June 12 had serious impact on the local winter wheat yield, and it has been a challenge for farmers to cut and dry the hay in their fields. Lybeck said though there is more hay than last year, when the valley had to import hay for livestock, it has been, in general, lower quality than other years.

“It was a challenging year to get hay up, out, and dry,” he said.

The Flathead Valley seemed to take the brunt of the wheat “hiccup” last year, Lybeck said, because in other areas it wasn’t too rough. But the frost damage didn’t help this year’s yield, even though the damage was sporadic.

“It was just hugely variable across the valley,” Lybeck said. “We saw decreases of 40 percent in some places and then no damage in other places.”

The cooler summer weather helped keep insects and pests manageable, but the flip side of that is more fungal and bacteria issues than average, he said.

As of last week, Lybeck estimated more than 90 percent of local farmers were close to the end of harvest.

Statewide, agriculture had a strong year in 2015, according to the annual Labor Day Report from the state Department of Labor and Industry. Last year’s agriculture added $209 million to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), constituting a 13.7 percent increase.

Though the market may have been volatile in the last five years, the state recorded significant growth in agriculture, with 4.4 percent GDP growth every year since 2010. It also saw an 8.5 percent increase in employment statewide.

The strong year started to diminish toward the end of 2015, the report said, and into the first quarter of 2016.

Ron de Yong, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said the agriculture economy is much more volatile than other markets, because since food is a standard necessity, people tend to buy the same amount regardless of supply.

“We’re good at farming, so we generally get into a situation where we raise too much wheat, and the price comes down dramatically,” de Yong said.

This means the total revenue can fluctuate based on supply and demand for agriculture products.

De Yong also said that though the Labor Day report said agriculture only accounts for 4 percent of the total GDP, that is slightly misleading and not the reality for many small communities throughout the state.

“If you’re in a small town, it’s 100 percent (of your economy),” de Yong said. “The turnover effect on those dollars is huge. They generally figure at least around five to one, it really is a bigger chunk than it sounds like in those reports.”

In general, the average value of Montana’s farm production increased by 59 percent in the five years covered in the 2012 agriculture census from the USDA, outpacing the national average of 39 percent, he said.

Much of that increase has to do with new techniques for planting peas and lentils and chickpeas on chem-fallow ground. De Yong said the United States still has the strongest economy in the world, meaning our dollar is powerful, which can have a detrimental affect on export prices.

But there is hope for wheat producers, he said, as the commodities market is cyclical, meaning the low prices will eventually increase again.

“I can see some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

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