Madison County ag producers reaping benefits of good market

A recently released U.S. government agricultural census said the value of Montana agricultural products is up, and local ranchers and farmers agree that this is a good thing for the state and for Madison County.

“It is an amazing time to be in the cattle business,” Twin Bridges rancher Dave Ashcraft said.

Market prices show calves are selling at $2.40 to $2.50 a pound, helping ranchers bring in good money. Crop prices are down from last year, according to George Haynes of Montana State University, but they are still at a level that will bring in money for producers.

Terrence Droge of London Hills Farm between Harrison and Cardwell said that Montana is in a good position this year due to other seed potato growing areas in Idaho and Colorado having issues.

“We are the first place people shop,” Droge said of the state. He added that crop prices have remained quite good for potatoes.

The 2012 agriculture census said the value of Montana products went from $2.8 billion in 2007 to $4.2 billion in 2012. That is a 50.9 percent increase. Nationally, the value of agricultural products rose by 32.8 percent. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agriculture Statistics Service takes a complete count of America’s farms and ranches and the people who operate them every five years.

Ashcraft said those numbers are positive, but they do not tell the whole story. He said input costs have steadily increased during the past few years as well and they will not be going down soon.

“From fertilizer to fuel and labor, they all cost more now,” Ashcraft said.

Also a variable in the mix is moisture. Ashcraft said it is something ranchers deal with yearly and he examines moisture levels across the board. He said this year it looks like some areas such as the Big Hole have good snowpack while others like the Centennial Valley is currently below average.

Droge said he is elated by the recent snowfall and said he hopes the snowpack is better this year. He said that due to severe drought conditions in the county last year he was down to nothing in terms of irrigation water.

“We have no wells. It is all based off of snowpack,” he said. “It has been absolutely terrible.  The last two years have been really bad.”

That lack of moisture combined with hail damage completely wiped out one field and took out between 30 and 50 percent of some others. Droge said he was still able to have an average and good harvest.

Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz, a former rancher, said agriculture continues to be the county’s number one economic driver. According to Schulz, the good market is a very positive thing for the county as a whole and not just the producers.

“Every ag dollar passes through at least six times before it leaves the county,” Schulz said. “Every business then is reaping similar benefits then and it transfers over to other industries in the county like tourism and recreation.”

Ashcraft said the family has prepared for expansion for 10 to 12 years and was able to expand the ranch’s acreage last year due to low interest rates.

“The rates gave us the opportunity to leverage our money and buy like no other time I have seen,” he said.

Droge has also grown his operation throughout the years. In 2002 he started with 150 acres and now is closer to 3,500. They include land near Cardwell, Ennis and Virginia City. Droge said about 430 acres are used for potatoes. He also grows grain.

Working the ranch his father bought 57 years ago, Ashcraft said he intends on passing it down to his children—Jonathan, Katie and Kristin. He added the ranch and the work involved is something important to his family, but he is not sure all families are like that. According to the agriculture census, there were 91 more Montana farmers under the age of 35 in 2012 than in 2007. Census data is used to make decisions about things directly impacting producers, the USDA said. They include community planning, store and company locations, availability of operational loans and other funding, location and staffing of service centers as well as farm programs and policies.

“We have tried to provide an opportunity for young people,” Ashcraft said of himself and his wife Cindy. “It is all our children have known.”

Even with good markets and times like there is now, Ashcraft said he believes his children and other young people can be successful in farming and ranching.

“Only time will tell,” he said. “I am optimistic about their future. They will have to be progressive, work hard and find their niches. Their expectations will have to be in line with what is possible.”

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