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2019 Montana Agriculture Year in Review

Wheat and barley fields south of Manhattan, Montana, April 27, 2019.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Wheat and barley fields south of Manhattan, Montana, April 27, 2019.

2019 was a weird year for agricultural production in Montana. That’s according to one of the presenters at the upcoming Agricultural Economics Outlook Conference in Bozeman this Friday.

Kate Fuller opens some charts on her office computer. They show the overall acres planted with the state’s big commodity crops in 2019.

“In terms of acreage, we’re a bit up in wheat. Barley is as it has been for a long time, pretty flat. We saw a decline in lentil acres,” Fuller, an extension specialist and an assistant professor in Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University, says.

She says Montana’s overall agricultural production this year was about the same as 2018, but there were a lot of challenges.

“2019 has definitely been a weird year,” Fuller says.

Part of that weirdness is because a cold, wet spring and fall made it harder for farmers to get into their fields to plant and harvest. Another factor ...

“We’ve been in this extended trade situation, and I think people are starting to get more concerned about that,” Fuller says.

Grain prices have been low for the last several years. Trade wars and higher tariffs have made it harder for farmers to find profitable markets outside the U.S. Fuller says the U.S. typically exports about half of its grain. For Montana, it’s more around 75 percent.

She says another reason why grain prices have been in a slump is because other countries are getting better at growing more high-quality grain. That means there’s more competition on the global market.

“Given the sort of circumstance that we’re in right now, where prices for pretty much everything we produce are in the decline, producers are really looking for something else to offset that. And so we’ve had growers pretty interested in growing hemp,” Fuller says.

Montana is the number one state in terms of acres planted with hemp. But right now it doesn’t have any big processors, and many Montana farmers are alleging shady contracts with buyers that didn’t pay them what they are owed.

“It certainly has not been a risk-free situation,” Fuller says.

She says a number of policies in the Farm Bill are in place to support farmers when commodity crop prices or yields are low that could help keep production levels stable in 2020. But there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Fuller will be presenting at MSU’s Agricultural Economics Outlook Conference on Friday.