The Roundup -

Residents Should Attend Public Meetings To Represent Future Farmers Of Area

 

Kyler and Karsten Jonsson checking out sugarbeets. (Submitted photo)

The president of the Montana-North Dakota Sugarbeet Growers Association is urging a strong showing of positive support at the upcoming public meetings regarding the future of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District.

"Each meeting needs to be attended because this is not just a farmer issue, it's a community issue. No matter how you feel about it, it does affect you. From a farmer standpoint, we need support from everyone," Kjeld Jonsson said. "The rancher that gets irrigated hay and corn from an irrigated grower, we need your support. From the towns that have shallow wells and sand points that are recharged from the irrigation district, we need your support. From the fellow business owners that we farmers purchase our inputs and do business with, we need your support.  From the hunters and fishers that enjoy bountiful birds and trees and nature that has come from this irrigation district, we need your support."

Jonsson noted if anyone doubts the importance of the irrigation project, they should look at pictures of the area from 1910-1914 when the canal was under construction.

"As a farmer, we are just asking for the ability to carry on a tradition of providing crops to the people who need them," he stressed. "Currently we buy retail, sell wholesale and pay freight both ways and overall we are OK with that because it is in our nature to do what needs to be done and we do it with pride."

The meetings start at 5:30 p.m. on June 28 at the Richland County Event Center and on June 29 at the Dawson County High School auditorium in Glendive. A meeting in Billings on June 30 is scheduled from 5:30-9 p.m. Buses are being arranged for the meetings.

Jonsson said these meetings are even more critical to attend than similar meetings in past years.

"Because farmers are getting to be a smaller group, it is difficult to explain the severity of the issue. While most have always assumed 'things will just be OK,' this issue is real and affects more than just farmers," Jonsson explained. "When economic viability goes away, so does economic stability, and all communities need that as a base.  If a community base becomes fractured, then it can crumble bringing even stable businesses down with it.   

Leslie Messer, executive director of Richland Economic Development, said an informational meeting will take place on June 21 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Elks Lodge to answer any concerns that residents may have.

"This project is important in the sense it is really the reason Sidney, Savage, Fairview and Glendive are on the map. Yes we can say Glendive has the railroad and the interstate, but the reason most families came to eastern Montana was stability," Jonsson said.

He added, "Stability came from an irrigation district that was formed and gave jobs at a time of need to those who were willing to work.  With the formation of that district and the stability to the area, then came the ability to grow consistent crops. That resulted in the construction of a sugar factory, which is still here today.  Because of that factory, people relocated from other areas, due to the fact that this project gave them the opportunity to provide for their family.  This is an example of a government project that did succeed; it helped in a time of need, and laid the foundation for what we now have in Richland County."

The Corps and Reclamation are serving as joint lead federal agencies in the preparation of the EIS which analyzes six alternatives: no action, rock ramp, bypass channel, modified side channel, multiple pump, and multiple pumps with conservation measures.

The Environmental Impact Study has identified the bypass channel alternative as the preferred alternative.

"When it comes down to it, some options are not economically viable.  So when we look at the big picture, it needs to be something that is sustainable in the long term.  Some of the options are short term fixes with long term implications. Those costs would be placed on the backs of your local farmers," Jonsson said. "With the change in times, and the modernization of farming efficiencies, the number of farmers and farms has decreased.  One thing that has not decreased is the amount of acres being farmed under irrigation in Richland County.  Agriculture was our base in the early 1900s, and still is our base in 2016; but our voice to stand our ground has gotten smaller.  Farmer improvements and efficiencies have led to farmers and ranchers being able to do more with less."

The sugarbeet growers' leader said it's hard to say what eastern Montana's future would look like if the diversion is closed. Jonsson feels a dryland wheat acre to sugar beet acre comparison is 15 to one. He explains that a possible closing of a sugar processing factory is like losing 497,250 acres of wheat based if you're comparing dollars to dollars.

"If you are looking at it from a labor standpoint comparing dryland farming to irrigating farming it is about an eight to one ratio in the sense that one hired employee can assist a farmer with eight times as many dryland acres than irrigated acres," Jonsson added. "So obviously that leads to job losses.  Those job losses aren't only felt on the farm; but also filter through to all other jobs tied within the community. To guess where this could go from there is just a guess.  Do home values drop in towns because people now don't have jobs and have to leave?  Do taxes go up because now that land values are drastically lower due to no irrigation?  Bills need to be paid to balance a county and city budget. When something like this happens the impacts are then passed on to the ones who can afford to stay and tough it out."

The public comment for the Environmental Impact Statement runs until July 18.  Comments can be submitted three ways: handwritten or verbal at a public meeting; email: cenwo-planning@usace.army.mil or by mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District, Attn: CENWO-PM-AA, 1616 Capitol Avenue, Omaha, Neb., 68102. Each different comment during the public meeting will be placed in the official record.

"Farming is a business unlike any other, when you sit back and look at it. No matter what happens, the land is always farmed. It is like a business in town being open every year since the beginning of agriculture. How many businesses in town are able to say that?" Jonsson said.

The Richland County native added, "My goal in life even at my younger age is this: I have two young boys Kyler, 7, and Karsten, 5, and I would like to be able to let them have the opportunity to farm should they choose.  The name on the farm may change, the color of the tractor may change, the crops may change, but no matter what, the land will be used for the best purpose there is – farming. If our ability to affordably irrigate is taken from us, each and every one of those things is at risk."

 

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