During such uncertain times, the family farm is struggling to stay afloat now more than ever. We've explained some of their troubles with country of origin labeling, the ongoing battle with big-name producers, and how it all affects the prices you pay at the market. Locally, these struggles are directly taking a toll: destroying towns that once relied on small farms. The demand for cheaper food remains high, but it's leaving a ravaging impact rural communities.
Main Street in Geyser was once filled with many shops, bars, and businesses, but downtown has been a ghost town for over 20 years.
“I could buy everything I needed as a young farmer right here in Geyser,” said Walter Schweitzer, President of the Montana Farmers Union.
He says bigger brand names are taking over after 6 decades of changes to cheap food policy. This in turn is driving smaller businesses that feature local products out, “Over 50% of the beef and pork is processed by Brazilian owned companies. We don't have control of our food anymore. We've lost it,” explains Schweitzer.
He adds “And in that same process, all of these stores, my butcher shop: it closed. My grocery store: it closed. My clothing store: it closed.”
Now most small-town farmers are forced to travel far just for basic everyday necessities.
“When I first started farming, Montana produced and processed 70% of the food we ate. I could go to my local grocery store right here where this bare lot is. I could walk into that grocery store and the shelves were full of Montana grown and packaged food. Now we do less than 10 percent,” said Schweitzer.
He blames the current system, “This is a broken food supply chain. “
Walt’s not alone. Erik Somerfeld, a farmer from power has been working on his family farm since he was born. He says the situation in geyser rings true across several parts of Montana, "We had an elevator that we could sell our grain to. That's been consolidated by our Co-Op into a larger unit and instead of delivering grain a mile now a lot of it has to go 25 miles to Great Falls or 20 miles north to Collins are my two options,” said Somerfeld.
He explains how this cycle is also hurting small churches, volunteer fire departments, and emergency care centers too. According to Somerfeld, "There's less and less people in these small towns because of the way things have gotten with everything getting bigger, faster, and everyone wants everything cheaper so they're looking to the bigger towns.”
After 30 years of closure, 'Joyce Fuel and Feeds' has reopened to serve North/Central Montana farmers and ranchers.
Looking forward, Walt hopes the global pandemic will shed some light to address these alarming issues.
“We need to change this. We need to go back to what we had at one time and I think the consumers are seeing that right now,” said Schweitzer.
He believes if more supply shops and production centers came to rural America, then downtown Geyser and many others like it could be built up once again.
Montana Family Farms is sponsored by the Montana Farmers Union. Each story focuses on Walter Schweitzer’s life on the farm and a bigger impact on the industry across the Treasure State and beyond.