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Farmers and gardeners are still assessing the damage from a hailstorm that cut narrow swaths of devastation through the Butte, Big Timber and Lewistown areas last Thursday.

Some barley and wheat crops were flattened by severe hail between Great Falls and Lewistown, said Bing Von Bergen, who has been raising wheat and barley near Moccasin for 29 years. Von Bergen also serves as president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

"I was right on the edge of it. I just got horrible wind, but the crop was cut down anyway from our severe sawfly infestation and then the wind knocked it right to the ground," Von Bergen said.

Torrential rains of up to 3 inches hit some fields north of Moccasin, Von Bergen said. "They were pretty much pounded into the ground," he said.

The damage also was random, but severe, in parts of Judith Basin and Fergus counties.

Rod Linhart raises winter and spring wheat 15 miles northeast of Moccasin by Danvers and Ware in Fergus County, and his land bore the brunt of the hail.

"We have some crops that might be 50 percent left, but the majority will be a 75 to 100 percent loss," Linhart said. "We had started harvest the night before. You get hit now and it really bites."

Some of the fields won't be cut because you can't even see that there was a crop, Linhart said. However, the family has some farmland east of Denton, which was damaged earlier in a July hailstorm but suffered only up to 30 percent loss.

"I heard there was straw standing in a field northeast of Stanford, but the grain kernels had been ripped off the stems," said Judith Basin County Extension Agent Janna Kincheloe.

Kincheloe was weighing in animals for the county fair when the storm hit Stanford, bringing half an hour of driving rain but no hail.

Hail hit in a narrow strip mostly across the northern part of Fergus County, according to County Extension Agent Darren Crawford, and some fields were saturated.

"A fair amount of moisture came to some areas, which delayed the harvest. But some farmers got back in the fields" Tuesday, he said.

In Big Timber, a storm that built strength over the Crazy Mountains messed up crops in a narrow strip mostly east of town along the Yellowstone River, according to Sweet Grass County Extension Agent Marc King.

A barley hay crop west of town that King inspected had its heads knocked off and some alfalfa fields were stems only.

"On alfalfa, if you lose all the leaves, you lose all their palatable nutrition and livestock doesn't get much use out of it," he said. The heads contain the carbohydrates, starch and some protein.

In Butte, golf-ball-sized hailstones damaged every vehicle and some dealership windows at Toyota of Butte, owner Rob Dollar said. Other automobile dealers reported minor damage, according to The Montana Standard.

Crop losses mean hard dollars to farmers. But the loss to Thursday's hail of most of the maturing gardens in Big Timber was a nutritional and spiritual setback for Mayor Diana Taylor and her husband, attorney Tom Biglen.

Most of Big Timber's residents grow gardens, she said, so they have frozen or canned produce for the winter.

Taylor and Biglen had planted two large gardens so they could eat a diet of at least 50 percent local produce over the next year. But the hail trashed their 40-by-12-foot home garden, leaving just a harvest of some undersized potatoes. The hail also wiped out the couple's second 10-by-12-foot plot at the town's community garden, leaving other families' plots untouched.

The Duncan Ranch Colony of Hutterites near Harlowton wasn't affected, so it has produce to sell, she said.

Taylor serves on the Montana Food System Council, so loss of her gardens means delaying another goal of re-creating a local food network.

"In the '50s, Montanans ate 76 percent of locally grown food, and now it is less than 9 percent," she said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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