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Farm to pulpit

Montana’s new ag director brings it all back home

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The political fortunes of Democratic farmers turned politicians have been ascendant in recent years, as exemplified by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who once farmed mint near Whitefish; Sen. Jon Tester, who still farms organic grains in Big Sandy; Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman, who runs a dairy farm in Creston; and Montana Rep. Mike Jopek, who runs an organic vegetable farm in Whitefish.

We’ve heard a lot about how their rural values are supposed to inform their wider policy decisions, but how do they inform decisions on the issue they presumably know the most about, agriculture?

Schweitzer’s recent appointment of Ron de Yong as director of the Montana Department of Agriculture may provide a glimpse. De Yong replaces Nancy K. Peterson, who was appointed by Schweitzer in 2005, and who died of cancer earlier this summer. 

In his new position, de Yong essentially carries out the agricultural policies of the governor.

Tooling down the dusty roads near his Creston farm in de Yong’s Tester bumper sticker-bearing pickup truck, we come to a stop alongside another pickup. Inside sits Brenneman, who currently rents de Yong’s farm to grow feed for his dairy cows.

The two farmers talk agriculture for a bit, and then politics. It turns out both Brenneman and Jopek urged Schweitzer to pick de Yong as director.

“We did it in a combined assault,” Brenneman says, laughing.

De Yong, like the other men who form Montana’s agricultural-political complex, was once a Montana farmer.

But in 1994, after 20 years working the land, he decided to go back to school.

He’d already earned bachelors degrees in both agriculture and philosophy from Montana State University, and he’d decided to pursue a masters in economics from the University of Montana.

During his years farming, he says, he watched mid-sized family farms dwindle due to market pressures created by corporate farming and globalization.

“You go to eastern Montana and you look at some of those rural communities, and you look at the small towns, they’re kind of drying up,” he says. “They look devastated, because there’s a few really large farms now, and they go to larger centers to get their supplies…You don’t have the mid-sized farms in there, the ones that are actually supporting the schools and the doctors and the dentists and the libraries and everything that goes with it.”

According to the non-profit Center for Rural Affairs, mid-sized family farms have been “decimated” by corporate farming and globalization. And the Center for Rural Affairs agrees that the trend is destroying the economies of rural communities.

Schweitzer has said in the past that his former business, mint farming, has mostly been outsourced to China.

De Yong believes corporate and overseas farms are able to create an illusion of greater efficiency by externalizing a lot of their costs.

“If you take a small town that’s got lots of family farms around it, they support that whole infrastructure that keeps the whole community going,” he says. “So they set a price that includes supporting that infrastructure. Now, if you have a few mega-farms, that infrastructure stuff is all externalities, so they appear more efficient because they don’t have to pay for any of those externalities.

“Why are things so cheap in China?” he asks. “Because China doesn’t have labor laws like we do. So instead of incorporating a fair price for labor into their prices, they’ve shuffled that off as an externality.”

De Yong says he went back to school in part to see if he could help save rural farming communities.

His education eventually led him to become a professor at California Polytechnic State University, where he taught classes on agriculture policy and economics for seven years.

There, he says, his advanced policy class made presentations to representatives of the World Bank and agriculture policy experts working on the 2007 U.S. Farm Bill, which is currently before the Senate.

De Yong himself has also worked as an economist for the National Farmers Union, was a member of of Sen. Max Baucus’ delegation to the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, and has given policy advice to national agricultural and environmental groups including the International Federation of Agricultural producers.

Now, in his new position, de Yong plans to implement policies that encourage mid-sized, family farmers.

De Yong says that rather than wait for Congress to enhance origin labels for food, which is currently being considered in the 2007 Farm Bill, he wants to work to promote the Montana brand, so people here can more easily make the decision to buy from local farmers.

Besides that, he says, labeling gives non-farmers something they want.

“In consumer surveys, they all want to know where their food is coming from; they all want to know how it was raised,” de Yong says.

De Yong also wants to encourage more family farmers to exploit niche markets and value-added products.

“If you’re raising a generic product just like everybody else, and you say, ‘I want this price,’ they’ll say ‘forget it,’” de Yong says.

Farmers who create specialty products, he says, “can be price setters instead of price takers.”

De Yong doesn’t start his new job until September, so he doesn’t have a lot of policy specifics to announce yet. But his appointment represents a chance for the mid-sized family farmers themselves to play a role in developing the policies that impact not just their fates, but the fates of their communities as well.

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