Montana farmers, ranchers share thoughts on Farm Bill, trade policies with Tester in Great Falls

Farmers and ranchers from across Montana shared their concerns related to trade policies and the upcoming Farm Bill with Sen. Jon Tester during a listening session in Great Falls on Saturday.

Many of their concerns focused on the uncertainty related to international trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with between the U.S., Canada and Mexico; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the U.S., Canada and Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2016.

Michelle Erickson-Jones, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said NAFTA is big for barley growers and the U.S. should finalize the deal though they still have issues related to grading Canadian grain.

As far as TPP, she said if the deal goes through without the U.S., American wheat will be at a $65 per metric ton disadvantage. Japan is a major wheat and barley customer, she said.

“That would be devastating to our farmers,” Erickson-Jones said.

In February, the MGGA posted a press release expressing their gratitude at hearing President Trump’s remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he would reconsider joining TPP. They were also grateful for a February letter from 25 senators, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, urging the administration to work aggressively to secure reforms that would allow the U.S. to rejoin TPP.

Almost 30 percent of Montana grown wheat is exported to countries that have recently reached agreement on a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that excludes the U.S., according to the MGGA release.

Japan alone purchases about 20 percent of Montana’s annual wheat production.

Tester asked the group if Japan was open to a bilateral deal, based on their contacts and discussions.

Quickly and unanimously, the group said no.

“They’ve recently made it very clear that the answer is no,” Erickson-Jones said.

Erickson-Jones said they’re also worried about retaliation following Trump’s threat of tariffs on steel and aluminum. She also told Tester that MGGA has concerns about the programs in the Farm Bill that are proposed to be funded at levels below the Congressional Budget Office baseline.

She said for every dollar invested through those programs, there’s $23 in net revenue.

Mike O’Hara of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee said 80 percent of Montana wheat is exported and the state is also a top barley producer.

Mexico is Montana’s largest malt barley market and there’s room for growth, he said.

“They want our barley and they are willing to buy a lot more,” O’Hara said. “There’s great, great opportunity there.”

But because of uncertainty in trade deals, O’Hara said Mexico has started sourcing some barley from Germany and wheat from Argentina.

“We need to do whatever we can to turn this around,” O’Hara said.

Greg Thayer, with Montana Milling, Inc., said TPP is very important and will impact the ability of Montana producers to export grain. He asked Tester to look at the Section 199A deduction that he called an unintended consequence of the tax bill.

Errol Rice of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said trade is important to the nation’s economic strength and exports are critically important for the U.S. beef sector

Ben Peterson of Montana Farmers Union said uncertainty in trade makes it difficult to maintain and cultivate new markets.

“Blowing up NAFTA is a bad idea,” he said.

There are areas for improvement in the deal, but better to have it than not, he said. Other countries seem to be prioritizing their agriculture more than the U.S., Peterson said.

A recent study commissioned by the Wine Institute and other agricultural associations found that other nations were outspending the U.S. four to one on agricultural export promotion, according to a Southwest Farm Press report.

Peterson asked Tester to not allow cuts in funding for research so that farmers and ranchers don’t end up paying royalties and other fees to private companies for things developed through their research. He also asked that existing anti-trust rules be better enforced in agriculture.

More information on the Farm Bill from the Montana Farmers Union is available here.


There was brief discussion on the role immigration plays in agriculture and crop insurance.

Tester said the bill should come out of committee by the end of April and head to the floor sometime between May and July. The current Farm Bill expires in September.

“Whether it’s shipping grain from Fort Benton or beef from Shelby our producers need to be able to get their product to market and the Farm Bill plays a crucial role in that,” Tester said in a release. “The Administration’s policies on trade have many Montana producers concerned, so I wanted to hear from them about how the changes taking place with our international trading partners impact their operations. Montana grows and raises the finest Ag products in the world and I’m partnering with our farmers and ranchers to get a Farm Bill that works for Montana and strengthens access to markets.”

Tester previously hosted Farm Bill listening sessions in Billings, Missoula, Glendive, Lewistown and Kalispell.

Montanans interested in sharing their feedback with Tester can e-mail their Farm Bill comments to