Uncommon Ground

Milking the Pandemic

This is today, life in modern Montana. I wouldn’t give it up for much anything.

By Mike Jopek

I stood at the grocery aisle blankly staring at the milk, rather where the milk was supposed to be. The racks were empty, bare. I sought whole milk to bring home to dad who’s trying to gain weight in his 80s. Way in the back, beyond the reach of most humans, I saw a half gallon.

With a long arm, I reached for it. It was too far, too high on the rack in the back of the cooler rack. I shook the bars that separate the milk and it slid down a bit. I shook them again and the cooler-boy suddenly pushed it down toward me.

I said thanks, grabbed the milk, and promptly headed to check out. I’m unaccustomed to this kind of scarcity in Montana. It feels wrong. Though most anyone a generation older than me better understands sacrifice. I’m in the right place just not old enough in time.

Earlier this year, Montana’s minimum wage increased 5 percent or 45 cents hourly. Voters in 2006 approved the Citizens’ Initiative indexing inflation to the wage. This year, minimum wagers earn nearly $900 extra for full time work, enough to buy a computer or pay a portion of monthly rent.

If laborers frontloaded that $900 of hard work into last year’s Standard & Poor’s 500 index market, which nearly increased a whopping 27 percent, the return would have been over $240.

The S&P index contains 500 of the largest corporations traded on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. It gauges how well big business performs. Apparently those 500 big corporations did just fine with over five-fold the minimum wage increase of Montanans.

But don’t take investing advice from me, I’m a simple farmer growing food on rocky-clay soil near the 49th parallel north. Farmers like me work the soil with our hands, something we’ve done for three decades.

Farmers bet on crops and see the eye-popping cost of fertilizer, seed and supply. According to Agricultural Economic Insights the per acre cost of fertilizer increased over 70% from spring to fall last year.

Seed seems no different. Last year was difficult to reliably source onion seeds. This year’s scarcity and wild price increases hit the already shaken market.

This pandemic-economy stuff is weirdly painful. It’s sure expensive with lumber again at over $6.50 a 2×4 stick. A dearth of necessities like automobiles is shocking to most Montanans. We’re accustomed to good supply. But pandemic-era lots are empty. Cars that haven’t arrived seem mostly presold. I hope it gets better soon. It feels rather stupid.

Later, I went back to the grocer to again find the parking lot jam-packed full. The pharmacist said that some of the medicines my in-law needs were in short supply and allocation seemed uncertain in the months ahead. There stood a long line of elderly customers behind me, waiting patiently. I said little and moved on with 30 days of life-saving medicine clenched in my hand.

Maybe it’s all fine, I’m still rather new to medicine world. But this kind of shortage felt eerie to hear. Has it always been like this? I doubt it.

Perhaps it was like this a couple generations ago, back when there was little electricity, few autos in Montana, and no broadband. I know my neighbor’s kid hauled water to the farmhouse before walking to school. That sounds far-fetched these days, but believe it youngsters.

This is today, life in modern Montana. I wouldn’t give it up for much anything. We’re nearly two years into this pandemic yet I trust you won’t give up on Montana either. We’ve still got it good in the Northwest. I hope they get it sorted soon, especially that milk thing. I don’t need another chore on the farm.

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