About the only thing missing from the success of Montana’s agriculture industry is farmers and ranchers, Gov. Steve Bullock told the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
“The average age of a Montana farmer is 60,” Bullock told the roughly 400 federation members on Monday morning in Missoula. “We all know that there needs to be a new generation that takes over the family farm, and there are more jobs in agriculture every year.”
But with the state's unemployment rate at an otherwise healthy 4.1 percent, that puts even more pressure on the agriculture industry to find enough workers to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.
Bullock just returned from a trade promotion trip to Taiwan and South Korea, where he reported strong interest in expanding Montana’s exports of wheat and beef.
“We always want to figure how to better expand those markets,” he said. “Our land mass and agricultural opportunities are certainly of interest to them.”
That sometimes includes fast diplomacy.
State Agriculture Director Ron DeYong said an import challenge with India just got diffused in Montana’s favor. A widespread failure of Indian pulse crops had prompted some distributors to try manipulating prices by hoarding their supplies.
The Indian government attempted to thwart that, but in the process unintentionally blocked shiploads of Montana peas and lentils from unloading at Indian ports.
“The last I heard, the U.S. Department of Agriculture got together in India and we’ve resolved the issue,” DeYong said. “The ships are unloading again.”
In his remarks, Bullock said the state is investing $15 million in research, including one project using laser optics to improve crop yields and irrigation use and another testing how pulse crops could improve soil health in wheat fields.
The state also infused more than $20 million into regional agricultural experiment stations, $60,000 to the Wool Lab and $125,000 to the Montana State Seed Lab. It also funded a statewide weed coordinator in the Department of Agriculture. And it supported four Food and Agriculture Development Centers that nurture new agriculture businesses in Montana.
“There are also challenges ahead – sustainability, climate change and water resources,” Bullock told the Farm Bureau audience. “I think agriculture can play an important role as stewards of the land to lead in these areas.”
The public-private Main Street Montana Project has focused on five things the state can do to advance the agricultural sector, Bullock said. They include attracting a mid-sized meat processing facility, more agriculture product marketing, more funding for agriculture research and food safety, fixing agricultural water issues and working on transportation issues.
“I have directed state agencies to develop a plan to implement and assist with these recommendations,” Bullock said.
Farm Bureau president Bob Hanson told the audience that recent developments in ship exporting could have major impacts in Montana.
In particular, he said efforts to create a deep-water port in Oregon might add competition to the current port in New Orleans. While the Pacific port has been mainly focused on potential coal exports, Hanson said its presence would also improve farmers’ ability to get their crops to international markets.
Bullock said when it comes to the Oregon port, he was concerned the decision might be made before all the details are gathered.
“There’s real demand for our ag products around the world, and we need to take a position where that demand can be met,” Bullock said. “We’ve talked to the (U.S.) Bureau of Reclamation on that. But we have only so much ability to influence what happens within the governmental entities in Oregon and Washington. I’ve had conversations with both governors about making sure a process is followed that really looks at international commerce.”