By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer is getting lots of kudos for picking Nancy Peterson of Havre, a longtime Hi-Line farmer and rancher, as director of the state Department of Agriculture.
"I think she's the best choice that Brian could have made," said Jon Stoner, treasurer of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
Schweitzer announced Wednesday that he was appointing Peterson, 49, to the position.
Stoner, whose farm north of Havre is about 25 miles from Peterson's, said her knowledge of farming and her intelligence will be a benefit to Schweitzer's administration and to the state.
"She's pretty phenomenal as far as her knowledge," Stoner said. "She's going to be a real asset to agriculture."
Big Sandy-area farmer Lochiel Edwards, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said Peterson has been passionately involved in "research and some forward-looking vision for Montana agriculture for many years."
"She is known widely as an advocate for Montana agriculture," Edwards added. "We're pleased. We think Governor Schweitzer has made a good choice."
Peterson, who had just returned Thursday to Havre from Helena, said she is excited to take over the helm of the department.
"The last three days have been a whirlwind, but the adrenaline's still going," she said.
She said she had no idea that Schweitzer was going to offer her a position in his administration, even while she spent Election Day, Nov. 2, with him in Helena.
"(Nov. 4) I got a call here at home and Brian said, 'I need you in the Department of Agriculture," Peterson said.
She said she has a lot of learning to do - she brought home a briefcase full of material about Department of Agriculture programs and will return to start working with current director Ralph Peck next week - but she thinks her lifelong involvement in agriculture will be her strongest asset.
"Nothing gave me more experience than 49 years of farming and ranching," she said.
As director, she said, she plans to spend a lot of time in the field talking to ag producers.
"Where it's happening is on the farms and ranches," she said.
Her experience wtih agricultural organizations and agencies includes chairing the state committee of the U.S. Farm Service Agency for eight years. Schweitzer served on that committee with her.
Peterson grew up on a farm homesteaded south of Gildford about 1915 by her grandparents, Frank and Alice Kurtz. She married farmer Mark Peterson after she graduated from KG High School in 1973 - she was a member of the second class that graduated from the high school after Kremlin and Gildford consolidated - and continued in her career in farming and ranching.
She and Mark Peterson divorced this year, but are still partners in the incorporated farm. She said she plans to remain active in the management of the farm while she is in Helena, and will continue to manage her mother's farm south of Gildford.
Mark Peterson said his former wife will work in the best interests of Montana and its ag producers.
"She's not a selfish person at all," he said. "I probably know her as well as anybody and she is very knowledgeable in agriculture."
Stoner said he had hoped Schweitzer would offer a position to Peterson, who worked on Schweitzer's campaign for governor and has been active in the Hill County Democratic Party.
Mike Zook, FSA's executive director in Hill County, said he thinks Peterson's knowledge, experience and sense of commitment make her well-qualified for the director's position.
"Nancy's strengths are extremely apparent without regard to politics," he added.
Peterson said she and Schweitzer, who operates a farm in the Whitefish area, have many ideas they want to push forward while he is governor, including advocating alternative crops and value-added agriculture, using renewable energy on ag operations, and protecting and promoting the quality of Montana agricultural commodities.
"A lot of the ideas we have you can't put on a Democrat or Republican level," she said.
She added that until she is more familiar with the programs of the Department of Agriculture and of her duties as director, she doesn't want to discuss specific changes she might make.
Meanwhile, she'll make the transition with the help of Peck, who has held the position for nine years.
"He has assured me he will provide any resources necessary," Peterson said. "Ralph and I are going to start that process Tuesday."
Peterson said she has always been fascinated by farming issues, including technology and techniques and ag economics. She doesn't have a college degree, but she has taken many college and adult education classes, including classes in marketing, farming and accounting, as well as computer seminars and Small Business Administration workshops.
She has worked for Amtrak since 1991 and operated a private grain-testing laboratory in Havre in 1990 and 1991. She said nothing is finalized, but she is working on setting up a leave of absence with Amtrak while she is state ag director.
She said she will be busy over the next few weeks trying to tie up loose ends so she can move to Helena, although she plans to be back in Havre regularly.
One of the most difficult things will be leaving her mother, Trudy Kurtz, who lives in Eagles Manor, Peterson said. But her mother is also one of the reasons she accepted the position, Peterson said, with tears in her eyes.
"My dear little 83-year-old mother, who relies on her daughter on a daily basis, took my face in my hands with tears on her cheeks and said, 'You have to go. You have to go.'"