The U.S.-China trade war matters to Montana ag producers, but it's not nearly their biggest worry, according to state and national Farm Bureau leaders.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, was in Billings this week for the Montana Farm Bureau's centennial celebration convention. Not coincidentally, the American Farm Bureau turned 100 this year, too.
In a meeting with The Gazette editorial board Wednesday, Duvall said, he is feeling "pretty positive on trade" with President Trump. "He's holding tough, farmers are holding tough," Duvall said.
The recent Korean trade deal doesn't hurt agriculture, the United States Mexico Canada Agreement and the Japanese trade deal will help U.S. producers, he said. The USMCA still needs to be approved by the U.S. House.
There's a public misperception that China trade subsidies paid to agriculture producers have solved farmers' financial problems, said Hans McPherson, president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. "We weren't made whole; we got a lot of help."
MacPherson said Steve Bullock was correct in telling a television interviewer that agriculture is hurting in Montana.
Prices are low for wheat and beef, which are Montana's top products. Natural disasters, including fires, floods and drought are taking a toll on farmers and ranchers. Rising Montana land prices are a barrier for young farmers to get started or expand operations. Farms have to be bigger to cover the high cost of equipment.
The stress of prices being down across the board is taking a heaving toll on farmers' health, MacPherson and Duvall agreed. One convention topic this week was dealing with stress on the farm. A standing room only audience gathered to listen to health educator Darla Tyler-McSherry of Billings discuss strategies for improving mental health and preventing suicide in rural areas. Tyler-McSherry and her family started an informative website (askinearnest.org) for rural suicide prevention after her father, a northern Montana farmer, died by suicide.
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Montana has the highest suicide rate of any state, in part because many people won't seek mental health treatment. Care may be too far away or they may fear that neighbors and family will know if they see a local counselor.
Montana farmers tend to be fiercely independent people who have always been able to fix things, MacPherson said. Now that they can't fix finances on the ranch, they are stressed.
Duvall noted that mental stress and the opioid addiction epidemic are so widespread that the right-leaning American Farm Bureau has partnered with the left-leaning National Farmers Union to set up a website (farmtownstrong.org) with behavioral health resources.
Raising awareness is a step toward easing mental health problems, Duvall and MacPherson agreed. "Talking about it kind of waters down the stigma," Duvall added.
Montana farmers and ranchers may be more isolated today than in previous generations, MacPherson said. Rural populations have dwindled and people don't come to town to socialize as often.
"Importantly, while up to $14.5 billion will be delivered to help agricultural producers offset losses due to multiple years of unfair retaliatory tariffs, little of this support will likely remain on the farm," according to a market report posted to the American Farm Bureau website on Nov. 12. "With a projected $416 billion in farm debt, bankruptcies rising and loan repayment terms increasing, a large portion of the trade assistance dollars will probably be used to meet immediate financial needs, paying down debt and paying creditors."
What Montana farmers and ranchers need is better prices for wheat and cattle, not more federal subsidies.