Montana Sustainable Agriculture and Trade

Sustainable Family Farms and Ranches

By ruin of farmers and rural communities, by erosion, pollution, and various kinds of industrial and urban development, we have ominously degraded and reduced the long-term food-producing capacity of our country.
– Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers

One of our core beliefs at Northern Plains is our belief that family-based sustainable agriculture and ranching are good for Montana’s economy, our environment, and our rural communities. Montana is a better place when family farms and ranches are thriving.


Build your soil, survive drought and grow more grass

Montana Sustainable Agriculture

Nicole Masters – Agro-Ecologist

BILLINGS — Nicole Masters, an agro-ecologist from New Zealand, showed a crowd of 90 people in 2015, how to convert atmospheric carbon into highly productive soil. Masters stated that if all the farmers on the 5.5 billion hectares of agricultural land worldwide increased their soil carbon by only half a percent, we could sequester all the “legacy carbon” that humans have added to the atmosphere.

Steve Charter, a Bull Mountain rancher and host of the event, was encouraged by the message the young scientist delivered. “Her message is relevant to farmers, ranchers, gardeners, and anyone that cares about climate change,” he said.  “These innovative grazing and farming methods can build soil at a rate we previously thought was impossible.  Changing how we treat the soil will mean doing things differently, but the payback is significant.”

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Masters showed the layers of soil and microbial activity in a deep cross-section cut into the ground prior to the seminar.  She told the crowd how different types of “compost teas” can be used on any scale of operation to stimulate plant growth and the life of beneficial microbial organisms in the soil.

“This new understanding of carbon capture does not mean that we don’t need to stop putting more carbon into the air,” said Charter, whose land has been threatened by coal development for decades. “We need to slow this process down as much as possible while we slowly build our soils and store the excess carbon deep beneath our feet. That takes time.”

Masters discussed carbon capture, but also touched on the economic benefits of good soil. She estimated that increasing your soil carbon by 1 percent would result in increased nutrient retention equal to adding $245 of fertilizer per acre, and additional water retention of 15,600 gallons per acre. “Pulling this excess carbon into the soil will not only restore our atmosphere but give us the great benefit of healthy soil. That means soil with better water absorption and retention, greater productivity without expensive and harmful inputs, and more healthful food.”

Northern Plains Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils hosted the seminar at the Charters’ 2 Lazy 2 Ranch out of Shepherd.

Agriculture can be sustainable

GMO Foods

Sustainable agriculture preserves soil

For agriculture to be viable over the long term requires that it be sustainable. Dr. Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and chief scientist at the Organic Center in Oregon, defines sustainable agriculture as a food system that:

  • Provides a reasonable rate of return to farmers, to sustain farm families, agricultural infrastructure, and rural communities.
  • Assures a reasonable rate of return to public and private providers of farm inputs (seeds, fertilizers, etc.), information, services, and technology.
  • Preserves and regenerates soil, water, and biological resources upon which farming depends, and avoids adverse impacts on the natural environment.
  • Increases productivity and per-acre yields at least in step with the growth in demand.
  • Adheres to social norms and expectations of fairness, equity, compliance with regulations, food safety, and ethical treatment of workers, animals, and other creatures sharing agricultural landscapes.

Livestock Issues

Restoring competition to the meatpacking industry by boosting the 16%

livestock, Montana Agriculture

Four corporations own 84% of U.S. livestock

In recent years unfair practices and captive supplies have plagued the meatpacking industry. Four giant meatpacking corporations control over 84% of the U.S. livestock market. This shared oligopoly allows meatpackers to use “captive supplies” and other unfair practices to exploit both independent producers and the American consumer. Captive supplies are cattle that meatpackers either own or control through secret forward contracts. The livestock are “captive” because they are tied to one packer and not subject to normal supply and demand market forces, and these captive supplies have proven to depress market prices.

The oligopolists that control this dysfunctional marketplace take advantage of honest, hard-working family farmers and ranchers by setting these fixed prices. Without a fair, competitive marketplace or a level playing field, independent family farmers and ranchers have limited opportunities to make a living, and that same food industry charges consumers prices that are way out of line in relation to what is paid to the people who produce that food.

We are looking at this issue with a new lens: we call it the 16%. Instead of breaking down the powerful and wealthy 84%, how can we boost the 16% of the meat processors that are independent, family run businesses that pay our producers competitive prices?

Toward this end, we collaborate with the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and other family agriculture groups nationwide to get the federal government to exercise the oversight that is required to bring competition back into the meatpacking industry. Without competition, it is really no marketplace at all. See the 16% report here.

Country-of-origin-labeling (COOL)

Country-of-origin labeling is a standard practice for most products, with the notable exception of the food we eat and feed to our families.

Northern Plains, in cooperation with WORC and other farm and ranch groups, had succeeded in gaining passage of country-of-origin labeling in the 2002 Farm Bill. However, years passed without the U.S. Department of Agriculture promulgating the rules necessary to make country-of-origin labeling a reality until 2008.

In the meantime, we moved forward with action at the state level in 2005.  After two packed hearings, contentious debates in the Legislature, and a dozen amendments, the Montana Country-of-Origin Labeling Act was signed into law. It gave Montana producers of beef, pork, lamb, and poultry the ability to label their products as Made in Montana.

In 2011 the World Trade Organization challenged the U.S. COOL requirements, stating that they set an unfair trade barrier, and were too expensive for packers.  The USDA responded by strengthening the rules.  Now, labels must state where the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered, rather than just “Product of North America.” The proposed rules also prohibit packers from commingling livestock from different origins.

Northern Plains along with WORC signed on to support the USDA against the packers lawsuit against COOL, but it became moot when the WTO slapped a $1.1 billion fine against the U.S. for COOL.

Northern Plains continues to support legislation that properly labels the country of origin of the food we eat. Better yet, we encourage consumers to buy as much food as possible from their local food producer.

Genetically Modified (GMO) Foods

GM wheat

Genetically modified wheat found in Montana

Northern Plains Resource Council continues to oppose genetically modified wheat. In 2014, genetically modified wheat, unapproved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was found in Huntley at Montana State University’s Southern Agriculture Research Center, formerly a testing location for Monsanto’s GM wheat between 2000 and 2003.

Dena Hoff, an organic farmer near Glendive and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, has been working to strengthen test plot rules to protect organic and conventional farmers from contamination. “The USDA needs to be held responsible for this,” she said. “It is their lack of regulation and rule-making that has allowed this to happen. They decided to ignore the side of common sense, that we can’t control nature, and instead to go with industry control.”

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Wheat is Montana’s # 1 export, bringing in over $1.7 billion to the state annually. 80% of Montana’s wheat is exported to Asian markets that will not buy genetically modified crops. When GM wheat was discovered in Oregon last year, Asian markets closed their doors to American White Wheat imports for several weeks, dropping wheat prices across the country.

“This could cost our Montana wheat market,” Dena Hoff added. “If this is in Huntley, it is probably in several more places, too. The reason we haven’t found it yet is that we haven’t been looking. We cannot continue to put our farmers at risk to recklessly test new crops, just to enlarge Monsanto’s profit margin. There has to be a better way.”

GM wheat in general

GMO wheat

GM wheat is a threat to this region’s wheat market

Genetically modified (GM) wheat is currently being tested in up to five states around the country, and could devastate wheat farming in the Northern Great Plains.

The bulk of our hard red spring and white winter wheat is grown for export. Foreign and domestic buyers of the wheat grown in this region have said that they will not buy GM wheat. Their customers reject products made with GM ingredients, so grain buyers will not risk purchasing wheat that might contain even trace amounts of GM material.   If we grow any GM wheat in the United States, foreign buyers will look to other nations such as Australia and Russia that guarantee GM-free wheat. Despite the risk to wheat producers, biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are pursuing commercialization of GM wheat.

Problems with GM wheat

  • GM wheat is a direct threat to this region’s wheat market.
  • Wheat infrastructure will require dramatic changes if GM wheat is introduced.
  • Technology Use Agreements bar farmers from saving or selling GM seeds.
  • No country in the world has approved GM wheat for sale.

What’s at stake in Montana?

  • 80% of Montana’s wheat grown for export;
  • Montana’s No. 1 commodity;
  • Montana’s 8,950 wheat farms;
  • A $1.7 billion wheat industry.

GM wheat is a threat to wheat markets

Foreign buyers of U.S. wheat have said that they will stop buying any wheat from the United States if any variety of GM wheat is introduced. With more than half of Northern Great Plains wheat grown for export, introduction of GM wheat could devastate the region’s economy.

A 2003 landmark market study commissioned by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) found that farmers could lose 50% of U.S. hard red spring wheat export market with the introduction of GM wheat — and even higher export losses for durum wheat. Report author Dr. Robert Wisener, an Iowa State University economist, found that losing half of our export market would drop wheat prices by a third, plummeting farm revenue.

A 2006 update to Wisener’s market risks report found that consumer attitudes toward GM crops had remained unchanged. In 2010, WORC released another market update by Dr. Neal Blue, a former research economist at Ohio State University. Blue found that buyers in Europe, Japan, and other Asian nations will turn to other countries that guarantee GM-free wheat for all of their wheat purchases if GM wheat is produced in the U.S. This would drop hard red spring wheat prices by 40% and durum wheat by 57%. In 2014, the amount of wheat that Montana exports is even higher, and market disapproval remains strong.

With international tolerance for genetic traits in wheat at zero percent (other GM crops are allowed to contain trace amounts of GM material), a contamination event has severe economic consequences. Contamination can occur during many stages of wheat’s agricultural cycle and its commercial path to market: planting, cultivation, harvesting, transporting, cleaning, storing, and processing. It can be caused by seed impurities, wind, cross-pollination by insects, transport by birds or water, by volunteers (plants growing from the previous year’s crop), or inadequate harvesting and handling practices. Introducing GM wheat anywhere in the U.S. dramatically raises the risk of contamination and will send foreign buyers looking for markets they can trust for GM-free wheat. In 2013 an Oregon white wheat contamination caused rejected shipments in Japan and South Korea, causing millions of dollars in damages to American farmers.

Infrastructure required to segregate GM wheat

The grain handling system will inevitably carry traces of whatever flowed through it and traces will get mixed into future shipments. Producers and grain handlers will have to make extensive and costly changes in the way they transport, store, test, and sell wheat in order to segregate GM wheat. GM wheat can remain in cracks and crevices on conveyor belts, in bins or in shipping containers, driving up commingling risk. With thousands of points where grain could be misrepresented, mixed, or mislabeled, a single mistake or a customer receiving GM instead of GM-free wheat could shake market confidence and cost producers hard-earned trust.

Farmers cannot save and replant GM wheat seeds

Farmers don’t buy or own GM seeds; they must enroll in a technology use agreement that licenses them to use the patented technology contained in the seeds. These agreements prohibit farmers from saving or selling seeds, a time-honored tradition, forcing them to purchase seeds every year. Monsanto’s technology use agreement limits the company’s liability and imposes stiff fines – payment of 120 times the amount of the technology fee farmers pay to buy the seeds – for violations of the agreement. In the past 15 years, Monsanto sued 150 U.S. farmers and threatened hundreds more; all but 11 farmers have been forced to settle rather than face Monsanto at trial.

Grassroots pressure stopped Monsanto’s GM Wheat in 2004

From 2000 to 2004, farmers and consumers with Northern Plains Resource Council organized across the state and around the world to protect the economy and environment of the Northern Great Plains against the introduction of GM wheat. Under farmer and grassroots pressure, Monsanto announced in 2004 that it was shelving research and development of GM wheat. In 2011, though, Monsanto resumed outdoor testing GM wheat on hundreds of acres in North Dakota and Hawaii, and soon Montana. The biotech industry aims to gain approval for commercial GM wheat within 10 years, despite foreign market rejection of GM wheat remaining strong.

GM test plot rules

Currently the USDA rules to test new GM seeds are not only lax, but put our farmers at risk of contamination. More to come!

Local Foods

Buying local foods boosts local economy

dean_vista, Montana Agriculture

More than 90% of food products sold are from outside the state or country

Northern Plains members are focused on local foods because Montanans spend $3 billion each year on food and more than 90% of the food products sold in Montana now come from outside the state or outside the country. If Montanans were to consume only 1% more locally produced food, we would keep nearly $30 million in our state. This would translate to $110 million because each purchase of locally produced food multiplies into additional purchases, providing local jobs, and promoting locally owned businesses, thus resulting in community prosperity.

Every time we as consumers spend money, we are determining the kind of local economy we would like to have. Our votes as consumers – especially organized consumers – are easily as powerful as any election ballot we will ever cast.

Northern Plains members have been working hard to ensure that “one size fits all” federal legislation doesn’t inadvertently shut down Montana’s sustainable family farms, farmers’ markets, and small agricultural businesses that are critical to rural economies, nutritional well-being, and Montana’s agricultural heritage. They wrote letters, sent e-mails, made phone calls, and generated press asking Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) to carry his common-sense amendments to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Montanans know that small operations don’t need to same levels of costly regulation appropriate for international corporations.

Affiliates Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council and Bull Mountain Land Alliance operate a community food-buying club in Billings, giving consumers a way to purchase foods directly from the farmers and ranchers who produce it. Check out YVCC’s  page for more information.

Central Montana Resource Council in Lewistown has constructed a community garden to provide food for the Community Cupboards, Boys and Girls Club, and senior center. They also continue to work with the school food service director to promote purchasing locally in the schools.

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Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)

Every year 48 million Americans get sick, and nearly 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was introduced to congress by the FDA in 2010 to make our food system safer.

Predicting an effect on Montana farmers and ranchers, Senator Jon Tester quickly responded by proposing an amendment to differentiate between large and small-scale producers.  The Tester- Hagan amendment acknowledges that small and local producers aren’t necessarily the problem of food safety, rather it’s the large-scale operations with broad distribution that pose threats to public health. The amendment exempts food producers from the new requirements if they:

  • Sell the majority of their food directly to consumers, restaurants, and retailers within the state, or within a 275-mile radius of where it was produced, and
  • Have less than $500,000 per year in sales.

Northern Plains joined the fight to pass the Tester- Hagan amendment with the FSMA in 2011. In 2013 the FDA released the proposed safety rules that cover over 1,200 pages. The rules are split into two sections: Rules for Growing Produce, and Rules for Processors.  The comments have sent the FDA back to the drawing board because many producers are concerned by the extent and lack of clarity in the rules. We’ll keep this updated when the new rules come out!


Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement:

Border rally with Canadian farmers against the devastating results of NAFTA in 1999

* Empowers Corporations to Attack Regulation & Demand Compensation>>

Multinational corporations want to expand a set of extreme foreign investor privileges and rights through the “investor-state” system.  Under this system, foreign firms can skirt domestic court systems and directly sue governments for cash damages (our tax dollars) over alleged violations of their new rights, or ‘expected future profit’ before World Bank and UN tribunals staffed by private sector attorneys who rotate between serving as judges and bringing cases for corporations.

Over $3 billion has been paid to foreign investors under U.S. trade and investment pacts, while over $14 billion in claims are pending under such deals. Even when governments win, they waste significant taxpayer resources defending national policies against these corporate attacks.

* Threatens Food Safety & Food Labeling>>

TPP would require us to allow food imports if the exporting country claims that their safety regime is “equivalent” to our own, even if it violates the key principles of our food safety laws. These rules would effectively outsource domestic food inspection to other countries.

Under TPP, food labels could also be challenged as “trade barriers.” TPP would impose limits on labels providing information on where a food product comes from and would endanger labels identifying genetically modified foods and labels identifying how food was produced.

* Destroys Family Farms & Forces Migration>>

TPP is expected to continue allowing U.S.-subsidized corn, wheat, soy, rice and cotton to be dumped on other countries, while also allowing the import of cheaper (and often less safe) fruits, vegetables and seafood from other countries—further consolidating global food supplies, while forcing more and-more family farmers off their land and exposing consumers to wild food price fluctuations.  This phenomenon under NAFTA is already a driving force behind migration from Mexico to the U.S., and is the reason why farmers in many countries are already adamantly opposed to TPP.

* Increases Fracking & Energy Exports>>

One of the dirty secrets of TPP is its potential to pave the way for more exports of natural gas produced in the US, which could increase prices for consumers and dramatically increase gas production. Currently, in order for the US to export natural gas to another country, the Department of Energy (DOE) must first conduct a thorough public analysis of the environmental and economic impacts. Under TPP, the DOE loses its authority to regulate exports of natural gas to TPP countries.

The Race to The Bottom

TPP would give:

  • Rights for foreign companies to acquire land, natural resources, factories without government review
  • Incentive to offshore to low wage countries
  • Compensation for loss of “expected future profits” from health, labor environmental, laws
  • Rights to move capital without limits
  • New rights to cover intellectual property, permits, and derivatives

TPP could make it impossible to stop construction of coal export terminals

Trade agreements paved the way for multinational corporations to sue the U.S. for barriers to trade like health and safety or environmental reasons.  Ambre Energy is mining coal in the Powder River Basin with the desire to ship it, tax-free, to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, utilizing the TPP and the Korea Free Trade Agreement as its cushion.  The holdup is the development of coal export terminals – if stopped, Ambre could sue the U.S. for blocking trade-related infrastructure development.

“Corporations are trying to hurt family farmers by doing away with regulations efforts they couldn’t stop through legislation.”

Biggest issues with the TPP:

FOOD SAFETY: The U.S. currently rejects a significant portion of food imports from TPP countries like Vietnam and Malaysia as unsafe, but TPP would require us to accept food imports that do not meet U.S. safety standards.
ISDS LAWYERS: TPP will allow foreign corporations to sue the U.S. government in private tribunals/ corporate courts run by three corporate lawyers who rotate between judging these cases and representing corporations, which is a conflict of interest, and there is no outside appeal 
ISDS FUTURE PROFITS: Under TPP, the American taxpayers could be forced to pay foreign corporations compensation for any American law or safety rule. They can sue for their current losses but also future expected profits, and there is no limit to the amount they can win from U.S. taxpayers.
LOWER WAGES/FEWER JOBS: TPP will pit American workers against workers in Vietnam making less than 65 cents an hour. Economists who have looked at this deal say it will lower wages for 90 percent of Americans and gives corporations more incentives to move American jobs overseas 
ISDS CORPORATE RIGHTS: TPP gives foreign corporations that come to the U.S. even more rights and privileges than the American people and our businesses, and elevates foreign corporations to the status of the U.S. government by allowing them to sue our country in special tribunals/corporate courts.
SECRET CORPORATE NEGOTIATIONS: The terms of the new TPP trade agreement were negotiated in secret with over 500 corporate advisors, but the people, the press, and even the U.S. Congress were shut out so it favors corporations, not working families. 
BIPARTISAN DISAPPROVAL: For the first time, the presidential nominees of both parties, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, oppose this new trade agreement because it does nothing to stop currency manipulation, will hurt U.S. wages and jobs, and means higher drug prices 
BAD FOR CLIMATE: All of the countries in the world are working to combat climate change, but TPP would forbid many of the policies we need to stop the climate crisis.


TPP Factsheet

For more information, see Landowner Rights under “The Issues.”

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