Each month in Montana Grassroots we feature a member’s story. This month we profile MFU Board Member Ben Peterson who runs his family’s ranch in Judith Gap. Ben and his family are legacy members and great ambassadors for Farmers Union and Montana agriculture.
Q. Can you tell us about your family’s background in agriculture?
My grandparents Erling & Marietta Peterson bought the place in 1949 after multiple rough years on the place he grew up on in the Big Sandy/Havre area. The story goes that he loaded the family into the car and drove around the state and bought the greenest ground he could afford. The punchline is that much of the green was leafy spurge! The leafy spurge shaped the beginnings of this ranch by bringing sheep into the equation on top of the cattle and cereal grain operation that is still in operation today. A small feedlot was also built early in the operation. My grandfather paid for the farm with aptitude and buckets and hard work. Grandpa roughly doubled the footprint of the operation then my parents Dean & Trudi increased the size more to its current size of roughly 6,000 acres.
Q. What type of operation is the Peterson Ranch?
The farming operation was the profit center for most of the time my grandfather managed E.L. Peterson Ranch. With my parent’s guidance livestock become the cash cow of the operation. I am expanding the hay ground of the operation and using that hay to create more profit in our feedlot by expanding feeding of outside cattle. We are also dipping our toes into the direct marketing of animal protein to further diversify our operation.
Q. I understand your family has a deep Farmers Union History and you are a current board member. Please tell us about your Farmers Union history and your involvement today?
Both of my Grandparents were heavily involved in Farmers Union from early in their lives. Erling held many positions of leadership in MFU. My grandmother Doris was involved in the education department of Farmers Union and is considered the unofficial historian of MFU. My parents Trudi and Dean grew up in Farmers Union and met through their involvement in the organization. Trudi was the education director for a time and Dean was on the board of directors for multiple terms. I also grew up in MFU attending youth camps and eventually becoming a Torchbearer. I returned to the ranch after college and spent time in the private sector with CHS. It was not long after I returned to the ranch that I became involved in MFU again. I was recruited to represent MFU in the Beginning Farmers Institute (BFI) program. I have served as chair of both the resolutions and bylaws committees as a board member. I am very excited about the direction our organization is headed!
Q. What do you feel are the biggest issues facing agriculture right now? What can be done to improve these issues?
Production agriculture has many challenges right now. The top of the list being that there are fewer of us every year and our ultimate customers are more removed from the realities of where their food comes from. We as a group need to be more proactive about protecting ourselves and be prouder of the products we raise. Telling our story louder is more important than ever, whether we do it ourselves or through involvement in organizations like MFU. It’s important to join an organization that advocates on your behalf.
The recent challenges have also reminded the world that our food supply chain has gotten too far from the farm. Corporate consolidation in agriculture is the most immediate threat to the family farm as we know it today. We need to educate consumers about where their purchasing dollar goes so that we can build a coalition of producers and consumers to bring enough pressure to our state and
national representatives to fight the anticompetitive practices by the large corporations. Secondly, climate change is a very important issue. Most successful people learned long ago that we must adapt. We will not be growing the same crops in the same ways or producing the same products that prior generations produced. Promotion of publicly funded research and acceptance of those viable practices is critical to our future.
Montana Farmers Union and National Farmers Union have spent lots of time and effort supporting Country-of-Origin Labeling. COOL is the standard on almost every product sold in the USA with the glaring exception of beef and pork. That fact alone should have every person in America supporting COOL legislation, but the four largest meat packers have proven that money talks more in Congress than sanity and food safety. It is a proven fact that consumers are willing to pay a premium for USA sourced food and they deserve to know where their food is coming from.
The current USDA labeling is not just deceptive to the consumer about the origin of beef and pork, but it could be considered fraud. Beef and pork producers deserve to market their superior product from inferior imported products.
Passing a Montana COOL bill is a top priority for the MFU Board of Directors in this current legislative session. We would appreciate you support. Contact your legislators and hold them accountable for their subsequent choices. We encourage you to get involved in the effort. Tell us why COOL is so important to you and other producers.
Q. What advice would you give to young producers who want to return to the farm?
Coming back and taking over the family farm is hard. Generational differences within the family dynamic are challenging. There is valuable institutional knowledge on existing operations that needs to be mined so do not just push out the prior generation. Be up front about your plans. Your first priority needs to be to build a strong conduit of communication. Create a transition plan that you regularly revisit annually, at a minimum. Be adaptable and always continue your education.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge in coming back to the family operation? Secondly, how did you fix it or make it work?
The stress and pressure to take over a successful operation that is such an integral part of the immediate and extended family can be overwhelming. It took time for me to come to terms with the fact that small failures were not just acceptable, but expected. I choose to learn from the small failures and make adjustments to avoid the large consequential failures. My biggest weakness in managing our operation is my lack of marketing experience. I am not a natural salesman by any means. I am lucky to have met my girlfriend Mary Jenni. She continues to teach me valuable marketing skills that I can apply to the operation. I recommend always looking for new resources.
Q. What is your greatest Farmers Union memory?
I really enjoyed the summer camps when I was a kid. It was my first taste of knowing that the way we did things at home was not the only way, but that all of us were in it together. I was reintroduced to this on a much a larger geographical scale when I participated in National Farmers Union’s Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI.) I learned a great deal that I have applied toward bettering Montana Farmers Union as well as E.L. Peterson Ranch.
Q. Why should someone join Montana Farmers Union?
MFU is a production agriculture advocacy group that represents all family ag producers. The leadership are all actively involved in production ag and our bylaws require that it stays that way. MFU has been advocating for the family farm/ranch for over 100 years and will continue its work for another century. MFU wants every family farm and ranch in Montana to be successful and to carry on for generations to come. The organization’s principles of legislation, education, and cooperation drive the mission forward.