Opinion

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Reality Check

The Risk of Losing Agriculture

Agriculture is necessary in this state, and every Montanan should pay attention and support equitable solutions to the current crises

Recent tariff policy implemented by the Trump Administration is causing significant adverse consequences in the agriculture community. Farm bankruptcies (and sadly, farmer suicides) are at an all-time high. As agriculture is a primary industry in our state, the impacts of tariff policy are uniquely felt among our peers and in our communities. To ease the burden, the government has offered subsidies and bailouts. But if you know farmers (and ranchers) like I know them, they don’t want a government bailout. They want to sell their products for a fair price, in a fair market.     

Consider the life of a farmer. If a producer is not a part of corporate farming, he or she is largely left to his or her own devices to eke out a living. This is true for many small business owners in Montana; however, farming relies upon both manmade and nature-made elements to have success. Farmers take out operating loans in anticipation of harvest. But it’s not just the harvest yields they are banking on; it’s also market stability. The yields can be high, but if the market tanks, the yield doesn’t matter much. And if harvest and the market don’t pan out, when the bank note comes due, the farmer either has to refinance or suffer a default and ultimately bankruptcy. And refinancing last year’s debt to this year’s line of credit is rarely a successful venture.

Added to the market stress is the fact that the industry is plagued by a lack of succession planning and barriers to entry. Farmers don’t retire; they fall over. Truly, farmers don’t quit farming until their bodies simply can no longer do the work. Due to the miracles of modern medicine, bodies give out at a much later age than ever before. So we see farmers working into their 70s and 80s nowadays. Farmers who love their profession can extend their earning years, but as a consequence, entry of the next generation into the industry is prevented. So, by the time a farmer can no longer work, his or her children are engaged in a different profession altogether and have left the farm (and our rural Montana communities). And selling to “new” farmers isn’t a great answer, as the cost of land acquisition makes entry into the profession virtually impossible.

The agriculture industry carries heavy burdens independent of a tariff war. Farmers are barely hanging on now; unquestionably, if the tariff war doesn’t end soon, the family farm will. Agriculture is a driving and necessary industry in this state, and every Montanan should pay attention and support equitable solutions to the current crises. The risk is real: If we lose the agriculture industry, we lose Montana.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.