The year 2012 was tumultuous in agriculture in north-central Montana, with weather a major question throughout the year, and changes seen and proposed in federal farm policy that could change how the industry operates in significant fashions.
While what will come out of the next Farm Bill at this point is unknown, changes already are happening in the controversial Conservation Reserve Program, leading some north-central Montana agricultural producers to let their land lapse out of the program. Changes in worldwide production and marketing of agricultural crops and livestock are leading producers to at least think about changing how they do business, and, as always, weather is a major factor in how local ag producers will do.
Up and down year for weather and moisture
North-central Montana ag producers saw, perhaps, a better end result than could have happened for the 2011-12 crop year. After two years of flooding and a prediction for a cold, snowy winter, the region saw almost no precipitation from September 2011 through February 2012.
Then a massive storm hit in late March, blanketing the state with snow — and knocking out power in north-central Montana, which lasted for days for some residents.
The storms in March and April helped make up for the moisture deficit, and while June was slightly below normal for precipitation, the storms were timely for helping crops along.
This during a year when much of Montana — and most of the nation — was in the midst of a severe drought.
While few north-central Montana farmers, if any, saw bumper crops of wheat, many did see decent yields. The bushels-per-acre produced varied greatly, almost from field to field, across the region, depending on how much rain fell on an area, and when it fell.
Hay crops were not as good, although still much better than a decade ago, when high drought destroyed hay crops and decimated grain yields. The hay shortage 10 years ago led to many ranchers selling off herds, a process from which they still are recovering.
Crop weather still an unknown factor
The weather has continued to be hit and miss, with what comes over the rest of the winter — and the key factors of how much precipitation falls, and when, next spring and summer — a highly unknown variable.
Snowfall over Christmas week has put some snow over winter wheat, although not much. An insulating layer of snow is crucial for preventing damage to winter wheat as it lies dormant, waiting for the spring weather. Cold temperatures and other factors such as high winds can damage dormant winter wheat, sometimes leading farmers to write off the fall planting and replant in the spring.
The weather again turned around for north-central Montana after precipitation pretty well stopped falling in late July through early October.
That turned around in later October, and by today the Havre reporting station had recorded greater than 1 ½ inches more than normal precipitation for the year.
Variables in government programs
Another factor also is an unknown at this point — the government programs that support agriculture.
Congress still has not acted to pass a new Farm BIll, which oversees ag programs and nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps and school lunch programs. This is the first time in an election year that has happened since the first Farm Bill passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Senate passed a Farm Bill in June, which included eliminating the guaranteed direct payments to farmers based on past acreage and yields that have been in place for decades and replacing it with a new safety net.
The House agriculture committee passed its own version of the Farm Bill, which also eliminated direct payments and cut the food stamp program much more deeply than the Senate version.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has scheduled neither the House nor the Senate version for debate or a vote on the floor of the house.
Interest in CRP seems to wane
Another program is in the midst of change that could significantly alter the future of agriculture in north-central Montana — the highly controversial Conservation Reserve Program.
The program, a successor to conservation programs in the 1950s, was created in the 1980s with the intent of reducing erosion and promoting conservation and creating wildlife habitat.
It has been blamed — though some economists say the blame is overblowm — with the economic decline of rural Montana as producers take land out of active production, receiving a rent check from the federal government in return for planting and maintaining native vegetation on the land.
But the program has changed over the last two decades, and the latest version requires much-higher levels of work and invested dollars for a much-smaller return in rental payments over the duration of the contract, generally 15 years. This at a time when crop prices remain higher than they have in decades.
Some ag producers in north-central Montana are letting their land lapse out of the program, putting in production crops rather than re-applying to put it back into CRP.
Livestock industry ’s future
Another area that could see major changes in the next decades is livestock. Ranchers are looking closely at trends in consumption and production in their industry, as well as consumer and producer perceptions of the industry, to see if they should change how their operations run.
That topic is one under discussion in the next Cabin Fever session sponsored by the Hill County Extension Office, set to run next week.
Along with changes in techniques on how to raise and market livestock, the ever-changing levels of production and consumption around the world impact local producers, as do new trade agreements and the trade status of nations that could import U. S. — and Montana — beef.
Montana’s U. S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, has been a champion of opening new markets for beef, including working on trade agreements in South America and Asia.