"Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," National Library of Medicine
"Could Glyphosate and Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Be Associated With Increased Thyroid Diseases Worldwide?" Frontiers in Endocrinology
Guests: John Wicks, Peyton Cole, Paul Neubauer, Kali Wicks, Morb Wicks, Russ Torgerson, Renny Torgerson
Writing, reporting, producing and editing: Megan Torgerson
Sound design, mixing, music composition and additional editing: Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer, Hazy Bay Music
EPISODE FUNDING PARTNERS:
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
John: It's when you hear something, you're told that all the time and you're feeding the world, you're really proud of that. And you are. You are feeding the world, but you don't need to be maximizing your yields all the time. So that's why I think organic is a better avenue for a lot of these small farmers because you're producing less, but it's higher quality, and you're getting a premium for the work that goes in there that's representative and I think my non-organic farming, neighbors work just as hard as I do. But they should be getting that premium too because that's representative of the work that they're doing. And to see them get paid less but have to pay put in more, is kind of just a sad thing. And I've kind of just decided that I'm not playing that game. I'm going to do things my own way.
Peyton: At first moving here, especially older men would question what I do in the farm, like, Oh, you, you know, cooking a bunch and gardening doing that kind of thing. I would tell them my mom, the tractor, and they were definitely surprised and I think that was pretty cool and it made me feel pretty cool about myself. I don’t know a lot of women that are operating heavy equipment.
John: When I was farming non-organically by myself, it was like a struggle to get through everything and we probably needed a full time employee, but the money just wasn't there. And now there's a little more time to have someone helping that can make your life a lot easier. And all these like two person jobs, you're not that you they get done right away. And then a little bit of life comes back, and you get to enjoy your life. You know, we get a short summer here. And to not be able to enjoy it is kind of sad, you know, I love being on the tractor, but I also love doing other things. So when you have some help, and helps your mental health, and if it has you employ someone, and so you're building your community in that way.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today I’ll bring you with me to Tiber Ridge, an organic farm on the second highest point in Liberty County, Montana overlooking the low rising Sweetgrass Hills and the distant Highwood and Bears Paw Mountains. Curious to see how an organic farm differed from the farm I was raised on, I went there to visit John Wicks to learn how he transitioned his family’s farm from conventional to organic production and to learn the story behind John’s decision to convert.
The dryland farm, run by John Wicks and his hired hand Peyton Cole - who you heard a moment ago - has been in the care of John’s family for three generations. It’s located in the unincorporated community of Ledger on the Hi-Line in North Central Montana. Twenty six miles south of the county seat of Chester, John and Peyton live and work in the Golden Triangle, an area held in high esteem in Montana for growing high-protein wheat.
Like John, I grew up on what is referred to as a conventional farm, which generally refers to the practice of applying fertilizer and spraying herbicides and pesticides to kill weeds and pests. Another similarity between John and I: John’s dad name was Russel John Wicks. My dad is Russell John Torgerson. Both of our dads were born in Montana in 1952 and they were great mechanics who kept disorderly shops.
I first learned of John’s farm, Tiber Ridge Organics, on a scorching August afternoon during a visit home to my family’s farm for harvest. That summer, record-breaking heatwaves swept across the West. On the plains of Eastern Montana, wheat shriveled up from drought and was grazed down by grasshoppers. At my farm I saw dozens of hawks line the furrows waiting to eat grasshoppers kicked up by combines in the field. And in some places it wasn’t worth the fuel to harvest the crop. That summer smoke creeping in from Canada and the West painted the midday sky a dull gray. At sunrise and sunset the smoke filter cast a radiant and eerie orange glow over the prairie.
It was clear the Earth was sick. And I was sick too. Around that same time I had been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an auto-immune condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. It made me tired, weak and unable to eat gluten without suffering rashes. Later that year I lost nearly 40 pounds, dropping me to the same weight I was as a gangly 14 year old. That summer I came across an academic article linking exposure to glyphosate to an increased likelihood of developing a thyroid disease. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, an herbicide my family and neighbors apply to their fields to kill weeds. My parents were careful about limiting my exposure to the toxin, which no matter where you were raised, you may have been exposed to. Food on the shelves, like Honey Nut Cheerios, has also been found to have residual glyphosate on it. But growing up surrounded by acres upon acres of crops sprayed with the chemical, I’m sure to have been exposed more than the average American.
At a time when I was looking for answers, this article naming glyphosate as a chemical that disrupts your endocrine system, gave me one story as to why I might have developed Hashimoto’s at 30. I don’t know for certain that being around farm chemicals is what caused me to develop the disease, and I’m sure there’s arguments that would refute my theory, but it provided one potential answer. And it was a hard one to consider. I love my farm and my parents who always had our health and the health of our crops and livestock in the forefront of their minds. My upbringing fostered my curiosity, work ethic and ability to think creatively. So grappling with this information while at the farm, the setting of my childhood and the backdrop of my identity, was to say the least, conflicting.
This research is what got me really curious about organic food and alternative ways of farming, which led me to stumble across John’s story. During that trip home I sought a break from the heat in our air conditioned farmhouse and came across the Montana Free Press article “Common Ground” by Emily Stifler Wolfe about John’s farm in Ledger, Montana. The story spoke to so many of the challenges I was seeing on my family’s farm and in my community. It shared a vision for how organic and regenerative agriculture could foster drought resilience, create more jobs in rural communities and support the local food system.
For some context, USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines. To be organic they must grow in soil that has not been applied with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides like Roundup for at least three years. Regenerative agriculture doesn't have a codified definition like organic, but broadly describes practices that improve soil health.
The regenerative techniques that John and Peyton were practicing, included rotating crops, seeding cover crop mixes and integrating livestock. According to Emily’s story, those practices were building topsoil, despite an enduring drought. This story also shared John’s personal tipping point for taking the leap to convert to organic: in 2015, he contracted chemical pneumonia caused by exposure to the herbicide Roundup. This was when I stopped reading and looked up from my computer for a moment. John’s story seemed like a potential answer to the problems I was experiencing and seeing.
I have always been aware of organic food production. Growing up I knew of a small number of farmers who farmed organically. I knew conventional farmers didn’t like when weeds from an organic field hopped the fence line and began populating in their clean furrows. And from conversations I’ve had with organic farmers outside my home community, I knew they were peeved when chemical drifted onto their field when a neighbor was spraying herbicides, sometimes compromising their organic certification. While in recent years I have sought out organic produce in the grocery store when it’s in my budget, I’ve never had much of an opinion on the subject. I’ve always believed, and still maintain the belief, that farmers are best equipped to make decisions about their unique operations. But I can’t deny, when I read about John and Peyton’s farm, the potential of organic and regenerative farms really piqued my interest. Perhaps it was something that could help farms like mine weather severe drought. Maybe it could prevent people from getting sick.
Thinking about organic and regenerative agriculture made me excited about the future of farming in Montana, but it also challenged me to practice holding two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time. I could see the benefits of organic, while I believed my family and those who farm conventionally have their farm’s best interest in mind.
And those who farm conventionally are in the majority. Conventional agriculture in my home county of Sheridan County, Montana is so commonplace that a mere 1% of more than 450 farms there farm organically, In Liberty County, where John farms, the portion of organic operations is slightly higher at 2% of 246 farms.
“Conventional” farming isn’t really a choice families like mine made. It’s been the default. Farm chemicals became widely used in the 1950s and 1960s when DDT came on the scene. In 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency officially banned DDT. But there were other pesticides and herbicides farmers continued using, and for good reason. They killed the insects and weeds that threatened their crops and livelihoods, and they helped farmers save on “labor, machinery and fuel used for mechanical weed control.” This has contributed to substantial increases in crop yields over the past 60 years. Most farmers, who are tight on time and working within thin profit margins, have been sold on the innovation.
It’s easy to pit one school of thought against the other - to demonize or glorify either practice. But one thing I’ve learned as I’ve pursued an interest in organic and regenerative agriculture, is that these approaches don’t need to contradict one another. And they don’t need to threaten my upbringing on a conventional farm. They can both exist at the same time. The bottom line is: every farmer I know does the best they can with the circumstances they inherit. And growing food, caring for community and working with the land are shared goals that drive both organic and conventional farms, like John’s farm and mine.
I visited John’s farm over the last day of winter and the first of spring, when the farm was still blanketed in dry crunchy snow, packed down by tires on the road. When you drive into the farm yard, there’s not a grand entrance sign reading Wicks or Tiber Ridge Organics, just a proud, blue Farmers Union member emblem tied to a corner fence post.
Save for the solar panels, the site was familiar. Tractors and disc drills, grain bins, a shop and outbuildings fanned out from the house and bunk house surrounded by a shelter belt of trees. The farm yard is sandwiched between a quiet gravel road and a deep coulee that reaches north toward Tiber Dam and the Sweetgrass Hills.
When I was there, I took over the bunk house a few short icy steps from John’s house, where Peyton, his hired hand lives. Over the course of two days, I kept the microphones rolling there nearly the entire time. It didn’t take long before John and I realized we had more in common than our roots in agriculture. Here’s John’s friend Paul who stopped by the bunkhouse to chat.
Paul: So yesterday Megan asked me what my favorite movie is as part of her audio test. What’s your favorite movie?
John: I really like “There Will Be Blood.”
Paul: That’s what she said! Whoa.
John: Dude, that’s...
Paul: I drink your milkshake.
John: …one of the movies I really like.
Paul: Guess what John’s favorite movie is?
Megan: “There Will Be Blood?”
Paul: Yeah dude!
Megan: That’s what I said!
John: That’s awesome.
Megan: That’s rad.
John: Yeah I have the book “Oil” somewhere.
Paul: Oh there’s a novel that’s based on?
John: Yeah it’s based on “Oil” by Upton Sinclair, but I was reading it and I could not pay attention because the first pages were about a car driving down a dirt road.
Torgerson (narrating): I wanted to start with John’s story, from the very beginning. So from the comfort of the bunk house living room, I ask him about his early days on the farm.
John: Ended up getting kicked out of the fields when I was a kid one time riding in the track with my dad and he got out to go change a shovel. And I had must have been three, you know, and I locked the door and cranked the radio and pretended I was driving the tractor. And I was taking his cigarette butts that were out and pretending to smoke and drinking his crush soda. He ended up having to break the window with a rock to unlock the door because I just thought it was a big joke and took me into the yard and then said, “He is not coming out into the field again until he is like, you know, in his teens.”
Torgerson (narrating): John’s dad, Russ, managed the farm before John. Despite their differences on the tractor when John was a little kid, people often compare John to his dad. John has an easy smile that softens his broad 6’2” frame. His family says they can’t count the number of weddings John has been in, some invites were from friends he’d just met. His dad Russ was also good at making friends.
John’s mom Morb says growing up John was like his dad in another way too.
Morb: He was a little bit wild, sometimes it – well it did, it stressed me out. And his dad had a wild streak too. So I was like oh my god what’s going on here and Russ would just say, “it’ll be o.k. It’ll be o.k. you know you don’t have to worry all the time.” And he was right. Things were o.k., but just the same, but when you live 30 miles from town and your high school kids out on that road and it’s a lot of gravel and you’ve got to go across the damn, it makes you nervous.
Torgerson (narrating): I can hear my parents saying the exact same things. I, like a lot of us who were raised in the country, had a feral side as a teenager. And like John, I decided to leave my farm to go to college.
John: And I think when I was going to school, it was something I wanted to get away from for a while and go have some experience, and I didn't really know when I would come back, but then you know with everything that happened, I just came back sooner than expected.
Torgerson (narrating): When John was an agronomy student at Montana State University in Bozeman, he got the news that his dad, Russ died suddenly from a cardiac arrest. He was only 54 years old. Russ’ eulogy, describes him as a “gentle giant with a soft heart and a good sense of humor who enjoyed life to its fullest.” He was a farmer, a family man, a Harley rider and a friend to many.
Russ passed on a Thursday and the following Wednesday, a funeral service was held at the Lutheran Church in Chester. John’s older sister Kali says his death was a shock to the family, and to the whole community.
Kali: When my dad passed, I remember, you know, standing room only at the funeral. Even when I was out in Spokane, people called relatives of theirs in Spokane, to come and sit with me. People showed up at my apartment that I had never met before. But they had a Chester connection and they were there to just make sure I was okay. You know, I was trying to find a flight home. And eventually, somebody said, let's just get in the car and go, so we did.
That's the magnitude of these rural communities - just looking out for each other and making sure that everybody is going to be okay.
And I will never ever forget, when the funeral finished, we walked out of the church and all of his friends brought their motorcycles and they turned them on and they revved them. So as you’re walking out of the church, you’re like smelling the fuel, but you’re hearing that sound and every time I hear that sound, it makes me think of my Dad.
Torgerson (narrating): John’s mom, Morb, speaks to me via Zoom from her home in Bozeman about the passing of her husband. She says not only was Russ’s passing a personal shock, it placed a huge strain on the family business.
Morb: Then in February of ’06 is when Russ passed away suddenly, and that was a definite, definite upheaval in our lives, both emotionally, financially. And we all had to grow up quite a bit. We did. And you know, what are we going to do? Are we going to keep this farm going? And I really wanted John to stay in school.
Torgerson (narrating): John’s sister Kali says the decision about what to do with the farm loomed over that time in their lives.
Kali: He was 21. I was 24. And our lives changed drastically. You know we really had to have some tough conversations about, do we sell, do we lease? Like, how do we keep this going? John is so young. John was in a band. They were playing some shows, he was just having a great time in college.
John: I was a freshman at MSU and it was in the winter. My dad, one of his great friends came over and told us that he had passed suddenly. And it was still kind of up in the air as to what was going to happen with the farm. So we came back and kind of did the funeral and then I remember we had a bunch of people at the house and we went in the basement and kind of made a plan. And it was going to be that I was going to farm that year.
Torgerson (narrating): Faced with the decision to finish his degree or step up and save his family’s farm, John chose to return to Tiber Ridge.
Kali: Overnight he quit school, came home and decided that he was going to make the farm a go. The plan in our family had always been for John to take over, we just thought there was going to be a lot more time for him to spend with dad to do you know, sort of the training, the day to day.
Torgerson (narrating): But instead of the years of training he’d expected, John had to jump into the deep end of farming. After Russ’s funeral, John returned to Bozeman to pack up his rental, while family and friends got the farm ready for when he got home to take over. John’s mom Morb says the first year farming without Russ was challenging, but John accepted the responsibility.
Morb: And he had never actually laid out the fields and you know, decided like, okay, now let's harvest, you know I'm gonna cut this first this was seeded here. And oh, we poured over Russell's notes, I can remember that. You know like, this was seeded here, this was seeded here. And then to try to even figure out which bins everything was going to go in. And, you know, the logistics of putting it all together. That little book Russ had, you know, we about wore it out. But with good help, but with very good help, and friends and neighbors, we, we got it done.
Torgerson (narrating): John’s sister Kali remembers how trying this time was for John.
Kali: things like, you know, where do we keep these wrenches? Where do we keep these bolts, like Where's all this stuff at? I mean, you know, to some extent, because you're out there in the summers, or you're out there, you know, helping from when you're home. But when you're in college, you don't know what project is going, where things are. And just some of those tasks were really tough. And I remember John telling me, you know, one time he was standing in the shop, and he was trying to get something done. And he just looked around and started crying. Because he said, I don't know where these tools are. I don't know how to fix this. And I know that there are lots of days like that.
Torgerson (narrating): In addition to the challenges of abruptly taking over the farm, John and Morb had to navigate life with constant reminders of their loss.
Kali: I think one of the toughest things that dawned on me when I was up here, in the year after dad passed is, I could always leave and go back to my life. And for a while I could forget it. But when they woke up every day, they would stare out the window, and they would see that his pickup wasn't there. And he wasn't coming down the road and the tractor was sitting there, or you would go into the shop and you would find a note that he had written about, you know, have to buy X this, do this, you know. And you would just have those little reminders every single day. Even now just thinking about it kind of makes me tear up a little bit because it can stop you in your tracks.
Torgerson (narrating): Despite the daily reminders of Russ’ absence, because he was such a good friend and community member, three of Russ’s dearest friends split the task of helping John that first year.
John: Chris kind of came over that spring. And you know, he showed me, this is a mix of tank and chemical, like here's your rates. And I gotta get back to work, but call me if you need me. I called him several times, and drove over there and bugged him a lot. So he kind of took on that part of it. And Bill was really getting the yard in shape and then Walt came and was showing me how to seed and he filled the drill for me and showed me how to do that and said, “We'll worry about calibrating next crop, like it’s set, you just go drive down to that field.”
And I had never driven the tractor, the air cart. You know, I was 21 years old. But I'd never driven the air drill. I'd had the plow or whatever that, you know, when I was 12, my dad would have out in the field, and then I'd go. So I hadn't really been on the main road. So it's a little nerve wracking, going down this really steep hill by my neighbor Buffingtons and then turning into the field without taking out gates or fences. And, you know, Walt showed me “you know, you’re winging out, and blah, blah, blah, and, you know and turn the fan on and get going.” And then he said, “You know, when you get down to the end of the field, turn around, just pick a point down there and look at it.” And so I got down to the end of the field turned around, and he was gone. He had to get back to work. So and I mean, at that point, I was ready to go so better to learn that way, then, you know, trained to sit there and baby me through it.
Torgerson (narrating): During the first 8-10 years John was back on the farm, he kept doing things the way his dad had always done them before. John reminds me how he farmed in those early years on the phone from his tractor this spring.
John: So I’d have half the farm in winter wheat half of it in fallow. I’d just rotate between the two. Sometimes I’d spray herbicide on the crop in the fall when it came up for cheat grass and then again in the spring. And then I'd be spraying all the chem fallow acres all summer.
Torgerson (narrating): When John was farming conventionally, he rotated between planting a crop on a piece of ground and letting it lay fallow and rest for a season. On the fallow ground he’d spray chemical or herbicide, a practice called “chem fallow,” so the weeds wouldn’t take over. On the land he seeded wheat, he engaged in a multi-step process. First, he’d get the equipment ready. Then he went over the fields with a rock picker. That’s a piece of equipment with a reel that runs along the ground that you operate with hydraulic levers in the tractor to fling rocks on the ground’s surface into a bucket. It’s way more fun than picking rock by hand.
Then when his fields were prepped and he was ready for seeding, he drove through his fields with a tractor pulling a hoe drill and a tank filled with seed and fertilizer. When John was farming conventionally, he typically seeded winter wheat, a crop seeded in the fall that remains in a dormant state under the snow before resuming growth in the spring. He’d spray the winter wheat crop with an herbicide when the crop started coming up in Fall to prevent broadleaf grasses or weeds like cheat grass or Canadian thistle from choking out the crop.
Then he hoped for timely rains and when the wheat stem was at the right stage for another spray against weeds, he came in with the spray rig and misted herbicide over the crop to kill fledgling weeds. He wished for timely rains again, then timely sun and heat so the wheat would head out and ripen, and he could come in with the combine and grain truck and reap what he had sown. Then he stored his crop in the grain bin until it was time to haul it to town and market it.
This, in a nutshell, is the cycle of a conventional farm. While my dad seeded more spring wheat than winter wheat crops, and we raised cow calf pairs when I was growing up, it’s essentially the same dance my dad did between fields every season.
Growing up John knew he wanted to live the life of a farmer eventually, but with the loss of his dad, he was thrown into this grind at an age when I was writing menial essays and living for college parties. He says it was hard to see his friends go on being foot loose and fancy free when he was responsible for his family’s multi-generational farming operation.
John: Seeing some of my other friends get to continue that college life, and you know, having to be here working. At least, you know, in the winter, I had a little time to go visit them, but it was like, this feeling of resentment. Yeah, where it's - god everybody else is still having fun, and I've got to do this, but I mean, I had my chair of fun, too. So it's not like I missed out on everything.
But it was a hard few years really to deal with all that and all this responsibility. At 21/ 22/ 23, some of those years, it's like, God, you're responsible for your mother's retirement, you know, your sister has student loans that your mom has promised her that she would pay. So it's like this money's got to come from somewhere. And my mom's always been a really hard worker. But you know she was teaching school, and it wasn't a huge income, so it was lot of pressure there financially to be successful.
Torgerson (narrating): It wasn’t long before John’s operation saw financial hurdles. The year before John’s Dad died, the Wicks had a bumper crop. The farm made a good profit. John’s first seasons on the farm were favorable too. He says at that point the future of the farm was looking great.
John: We had a couple good years in a row when I first started, and it was like, you know, you're like, 10 years off from not needing an operating loan is what our banker would say. And like that to a farmer is a huge thing.
And then, you know, the markets kind of changed and the inputs started rising. And I mean, we'd still be getting great yields out here, but the market just wasn't there. So then we started going backwards. And then it was like, you know, some misfortune or things like the hydraulic drive tires went out. And they were like $15,000 a piece. Well I had three of them go in one year. But some of it was equipment and years of the economy. Like I think there were three years in a row we were going backwards.
Torgerson (narrating): John and his mom ended up purchasing a new sprayer that year, another expense to add to the list. At this point John was getting tired and literally sick from having to spray costly chemicals on his fields.
John: the way we were farming wasn't making money, and we weren't happy doing it. And, I kind of dreaded every operation except for harvest. You know, we would be spraying and dealing with all the chemical and just knowing how much like, you know, you factor out how much each load, you're putting out, how much it cost.
And then, every seeding season, I would get sick from the fertilizer dust. So then I was spraying the road with Roundup and I had kind of been slacking and Morb had been on me about getting it done last couple days. And so the one day I was like, alright, I got some time, but the winds kind of blown and I went to do it quick. And I ended up through my mask breathing in a lot of 2,4-D and glyphosate and got chemical pneumonia. And then that was just not fun at all. And kind of like the turning point was starting to tip.
Torgerson (narrating): For ten years, John followed his father’s method of farming applying syntenic fertilizers and spraying chemicals like Roundup. It’s the method the vast majority of farmers use. While Montana has been ranked #2 in the U.S. for total Certified Organic acres, non-organic or conventional agriculture is by and large the dominant way of doing things: a fraction of one percent of Montana’s farms produce certified organic crops.
The status quo didn’t deter John from doing things a little differently though. When I was at his farm I asked him what finally pushed him into using organic practices.
Megan: O.k. so you had a couple set back years and you’re also getting chemical pneumonia and you’re like let’s make some changes here.
John: Yeah and then, Paraquat, when that came on the scene, that was just like, alright everything is done with that. We’re not messing with this.
Torgerson (narrating): Paraquat is an herbicide that farmers began using more heavily in the early 2010s to kill weeds that became resistant to Roundup. Since then studies have found that people who’ve applied Paraquat have elevated risks of developing Parkinson’s disease. In 2021 the EPA announced that there is no conclusive link between Paraquat and Parkinson’s, but the herbicide is banned in over 50 countries.
John was already experimenting with farming organically on portions of his farm at the time. He decided he was drawing the line at Paraquat. And he was ready to fully pursue his interest in organic agriculture, no matter what his neighbors might say. His sister Kali thinks John’s time as a freethinking musician aided in this progression.
Kali: You know, to go from again, gosh, I'm 21, I'm in college. I'm in a band. I'm having so much fun to man, my dad passed away, and now I have to go run the farm. That's a pretty big jump. And I think, you know, if you see John, you can definitely see that in him. I mean, he's tall. He's got tattoos, but he's always wearing cool shoes, even when he's farming. You know, he just has this really cool like, punk rock farmer persona that I also don't think you find in Montana. So, I really liked that he never, he never left himself behind. When he came to the farm. He brought it with him.
You know, he's still that person that came back to the farm when he was 21. He just, you know, found a way to make this farm his. He found a way to bring it up to speed. He found a way to explore new avenues and was really one we're the first people to do that, which I think is so interesting when, you know, when my dad first passed, he had all these conventional farmers coming over and telling him, “here's how you do this, here's the way it's always been done.” And certainly they got us through those first, you know, couple of years, and maybe even that first decade.
But then what I love about John is that he started to see possibilities. And he started to see, I don't have to do it this way. And I think I can actually make more money doing it the other way. And I think that I could, you know, sort of honor the land and do these different things in a different way. And when he started doing all of this, you know, kind of newfangled agricultural techniques, some of those guys were like, “What are you doing?” Like, they would call him and they would just be like, “John, you're gonna lose the farm like this is you're gonna ruin everything, like, this is not the way it's been done.”
Torgerson (narrating): This didn’t stop John. And he had a leg up on the path to converting to organic. He grew his first organic crop on land that already met USDA’s organic standards. In order for a crop to be certified as organic, the ground it’s grown on needs to meet standards that include not applying synthetic fertilizer, synthetic herbicides or synthetic-pesticides on the land for three years. The land John used to launch into organic production had been in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, for 20 years. CRP is a federally-funded conservation program for private farm or ranch land that’s seeded back into native grasses to conserve soil, water and wildlife habitat. This land is on a break from agricultural production for a term of at least 10 years.
John’s CRP land automatically met the certified organic criteria. So when his CRP contract concluded, John hit the ground running with his first organic crop. This was in 2016. And this parcel of land was actually the ground John’s parents had intended to start John on before his dad, Russ passed.
For the next piece of land John farmed organically, he had to go through the three-year certification period. This was on land John was independently leasing from a neighbor. .
John: Then I had an opportunity to lease some grounds that was recommended of a neighbor, like he was giving up the lease, and he told the landowner, “you should consider John Wicks. He's a young guy, he's doing well, like, his practices are good.” I don't think he knew I was gonna go organic. But so I started leasing that for like, a couple years. And that's really when I was like, I'm gonna start with this next because it's in my name. And you know, I'm not going to do all my mom's stuff yet, or the corporations.
And so I had called him and I'd said, “you know, I want to go organic on your ground.” And he had responded like, “well, we've tried it before. So we're open to it.” And he just said, “John, if you think that you can grow bananas and make money, then grow bananas, so just go.” And that was like, okay, this guy's giving me the green light, and, you know, believes in what I'm doing. And so we went for it. And things have been great on that. And then now, converting the rest of the farm, and 100% organic, because, you know, looking back, we did it quick. I mean, that three years flew by.
Torgerson (narrating): John decided to use land leased under his name for his first experiment with converting farmland to certified organic. That was intentional. He didn’t want to start his new endeavor on land his mother owned. John’s mom Morb says she was a little wary about the transition to organic.
Morb: Financially, it's expensive to get into organics or to even do a lot of soil health things. It's very expensive. Not only because you're not getting the yields that you would normally get in traditional ag, but also with the equipment and things that have to be financed.
So John and I spent a lot of time going through financial statements, banking, all those things. And at the same time, a lot of organic wasn't necessarily covered by some of the farm programs, so then your banker is not real happy, you know if - you could seed whatever you want - But when you're in with the banker, it's pretty nice to have, you know, a farm program that provides that safety net for you. So we had a lot of discussions on things like that.
You know, I always felt like I'm, I'm Debbie downer, you know, I'm the one that's saying, we can't afford this, we can't do this, this isn't possible. And then John would say, “but, we just have to get this far.” And then, he was far more farsighted than I was as to you know, that this would work and there were other people that were interested in this and very much that it's a change in agriculture overall, in the way we think about our land and the way we think about our soil.
And I think Russ was always very much in tune. And I can remember his dad too. There's a picture of John and his grandpa, and John has on a hat and they're sitting down. That is in a heart of that time, I'm eating sandwiches on the ground, but very much just in touch with the soil and having that appreciation for, the bounty that it brings us.
Torgerson (narrating): Going organic meant John would have lower crop yields than a conventional farm. He’d receive less funds from federal crop insurance programs. And he’d have to purchase a new disc drill to remove weeds and take the place of spraying Roundup. Still, John was certain about his vision for the farm. At that point he had spent more than two years speaking to other farmers about their process. And he’d read any book about organic agriculture he could get his hands on. That’s the same amount of time I was in grad school. Equipped with knowledge and first-hand-accounts from farmers, John says he felt confident in his ideas. His persistence and certainty helped him successfully convince his mom about his ideas for how to change the farm. It also helped his case that going organic would ultimately save the farm money. They wouldn’t have to buy fertilizer and chemical, and they would make more money selling an organic crop. In the first year John went cold turkey on fertilizer and chemicals he said he saved $300,000 on inputs. That evened out the costs it took to convert to organic.
There was a transition period before John fully switched to organic, when he farmed both organically and non-organically. He says it was a headache. He had to keep crops separate in different bins. He had to clean off the grain auger, air seeder, combine and semi-trailer between working with the different crops. Plus he had to keep tabs on both organic and conventional markets.
Five years after he began experimenting with organic, John decided it was no longer worth the hassle to farm using both practices. It happened one evening when he was looking out onto his last field of non-organic lentils with his friend Jim Barngrover. Jim is one of the co-founders of Timeless Seeds, a farmer-owned, organic lentils and specialty grains business on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Admiring the view of the Sweetgrass Hills and Tiber Dam from the field with Jim, he envisioned what it would be like to be a fully organic operation. In that moment, he knew it was time to go 100% organic.
At the time I visited in March, John was no longer using any inputs prohibited by USDA’s organic standards.
John: That’s about all I have for equipment. Really the way we’re doing things you don’t need as much equipment. You know you need a good tillage tool. You need a good drill, and you know, that’s about all you need, and a combine. I kind of bought extra specialty stuff because I like…
Torgerson (narrating): The first morning I toured John’s farm and conducted interviews, I showed up a little worse for wear. The night before ended with a busted radiator, a deer lying dead on the shoulder of a dark highway and an aching neck. On my way back from a pleasant dinner with my cousin and his family in Conrad, I hit a doe head on driving 65 miles an hour. I hit it between a grain elevator and a bar in Dunkirk, Montana. The airbags surprisingly didn’t deploy, but it still took me a few minutes to collect myself and stop my hands from shaking. Overjoyed that I had cell service, I pulled into the bar parking lot, and called the sheriff’s department and a tow truck. I waited in my car wearing my winter jacket and gloves, while a pool of pink liquid stained the snow below my car’s front end. It was around midnight before I finally got back to the bed and breakfast in Chester that I’d rented for the reporting trip.
The next morning at nine, John, showed up to pick me up. He was as friendly in-person as he was on the phone, and gave me a big hug when he saw me, which was comforting after my rough night. We drove straight to his farm to get to work, driving passed fields of wheat stubble poking through the snow. Along the way I noticed a farm sign reading Henke’s, which caught my eye as I have relatives in Eastern Montana with the same name. Before we reached John’s farm we drove on a narrow gravel road that stretches across Tiber Dam, an earthfill dam on the Marias River. On the west side of the dam, Lake Elwell appeared frozen, but John mentioned how grateful he was to live only six miles from the lake in summer.
My back still sore from my accident the night before, John carried my audio gear into his bunkhouse, while I introduced myself to his dogs and met John’s friend Paul Neubauer.
Paul stopped over for a night at the farm after he was on his way back to his farm north of Havre after skiing at Showdown. You heard from Paul earlier, when he realized John and I share the same favorite movie. I wanted to speak to Paul, a first generation farmer originally from Buffalo, New York, to learn how his experience in agriculture compared with John’s and to listen to the two philosophize together.
I chatted with Paul and John in the bunkhouse, which is nicer than any bunkhouse I’ve ever been in. There’s a tiled backsplash in the kitchen which opens up to a spacious living room featuring stylish a leather couch. Peyton has it decorated with Linda Ronstadt and Led Zeppelin record covers, thriving houseplants and found deer antlers.
One of the questions I had for John and Paul was on their differing experiences being first and multigenerational farmers. John kicks it off with his unique experience of being a multigenerational farmer who never got to fully experience working with the principal farm operator, his dad.
John: I'm kind of a different multi-generational person, because I haven't had that, you know, the last generation with me through a lot of the learning process. So I've kind of got to experience some of those things that maybe a first generation farmer would, without the struggle of trying to get established. So, in ways, you know, it's a lot easier to be a multigenerational farmer, because you have access to land you have access to equity and things that will back you up financially.
But I think there are some benefits of being a first generation farmer when you come into it without preconceived notions from generational things. And I think that those first generational farmers have a lot more understanding of the power that farmers have, collectively to get things accomplished and the importance of doing that.
Paul: That makes me think of my so my mentors George and Julie in Colorado. They’re holistic management practitioners, and sort of a philosophy of land management that I learned from them is considering your unfair advantage. And the way I think about what an unfair advantage is look at the context of your situation and see what is something that on the surface looks It's like a disadvantage. It is unfair. It is a problem. It's an obstacle to be overcome, and then try to change your perspective to understand what that actually allows you to do that others can't.
And personally, in regards to this subject, like John mentioned, as a first generation, farmer and rancher, I can do whatever I want. You know, my unfair advantage is that I don't have family legacy to uphold, I don't have the decisions of prior generations to consider, and I don't have, relationship history with my community. And there are positives and negatives to that. But there's, in a way, a lot more freedom. And I try to focus on that, because it's more positive, gives me more optimism than worrying about access to assets.
John: I think it's really easy for people to write off a first generation just be like, “Oh, he's a radical farmer out here doing these things.” And like, if I do something radical, they're more concerned, like, “Oh, you're gonna screw things up, don't break out of this model that is, you know, what we all follow.” And they're rooting for you, but they're very concerned. So it's interesting. It's a trade off.
Paul: Yeah, I work for first generation farmers. And I am one myself and none of us are from the state. And only one of us grew up on a farm. So I think our very existence is threatening. I don't think it's threatening because people in rural communities are naturally defensive. I think it's threatening because being conservative and risk-averse in agriculture is the only way that a lot of these folks have made it. And there used to be a hell of a lot more farms where we are and there's a reason but they're not here anymore.
Torgerson (narrating): I see truth in what Paul’s saying. The reason my family has continued farming in Dagmar for 110 years, is in part because they knew how to stretch a dollar during the ‘30s and ‘80s farm crises. From what I know about my ancestors there was also a stubborn insistence on making it work. I recognize that in stories from other old farming and ranching families. But I see it in Paul too.
I think another reason there’s a culture of risk-aversion among farmers, is because the farmer population skews old. My dad told me encouragingly when I started my own business “the time to take risks is when you’re young.” It’s exciting to see what energy Paul and John bring to their ideas, which they’re able in part to pursue because they have more energy to experiment and can more easily shake the dirt from their shins when they fall down and their ideas don’t pan out. Paul has an analogy for his start in farming.
Paul: When I was like, 17, I wanted to take tennis lessons, but I'd never played tennis before. So like I took tennis lessons with eight year olds. And like I was six foot four and big and athletic and these kids just kicked my ass all over the place. And they were the size of the tennis racket. They could barely, swing it, it looked like and then they were just smoking it left, right and center. And that's been pretty much my whole experience in agriculture.
Torgerson (narrating): He may not have been born into it, but Paul knows a whole lot more about the ag world than he’s leading on here. And his journey to organic and regenerative farming is proof of that. He got his first taste of agriculture during a gap year between high school and college when he worked for his uncle in Tennessee, who raised cattle as a retirement hobby. He didn’t take his studies in high school seriously. That changed when he started attending Western North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. It’s a working college that requires students to work 15 hours a week. There, he was an insatiable learner. Paul spent all his spare time working on Warren Wilson’s farm raising cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, along with corn, barley and hay for the animals. He learned how to maintain tractors and equipment. He studied animal husbandry. And he learned how to execute intensive rotational grazing plans. To further build his skills he became an apprentice with Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program. That’s a full-immersion program that connects early professionals with seasoned farmers and ranchers. The program focuses on the intersection of conservation and regenerative agriculture. Through the New Agrarian Program, John did several eight-month stints as an apprentice at the San Juan Ranch. The ranch is in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado. He helped raise organic, grass-fed and grass-finished beef. Paul says the owner-operators, are some of the longest operating holistic management practitioners in the U.S.
Like John, Paul pivoted his approach to agriculture after he had several years under his belt. Once he had some experience raising grass-finished organic beef, Paul was eager to learn how to be a farmer and raise grains and pulses. He thought those crops might be more accessible to a greater number of people.
Paul: We worked really hard and raised this really nice product that was good for the land and healthy food and tasted really good, but it was also like it's a luxury product. Right?
In a lot of ways. I mean, our food system is designed to make animal protein is really cheaply accessible now for what it really costs to raise it. But certified organic and certified grass fed beef is pretty expensive. And that's the reason that people have created those certifications and those market differentiations is to capture a premium. And if you're capturing a premium, you know, that's really code for selling to rich people, you know people who have disposable income to do that and I am of two minds on the subject because even now, as a certified organic farmer, we raise crops for a premium. We're capturing a premium in the marketplace, and again, that's people with more disposable wealth. It's not different, really. But my theory is that growing grains and pulses, which are the staple of human nutrition gets me a little bit closer to more people.
I’m drawn to system wide impact, and change, so I also wanted to move into a scale of agriculture that was a little bit larger.
Torgerson (narrating): Paul raises an important point, organic meat and produce is less accessible than food not stamped with an organic label. Grass-finished, organic meat has an especially high price tag on it, so Paul wanted to learn how to raise organic grains and pulses, which by comparison are more affordable, making them more accessible to the masses.
When Paul decided to leave southern Colorado to learn more about organic farming, he found an opening at Vilicus Farms. Vilicus, which is Latin for land steward, is a dryland organic farm north of Havre, Montana. Paul is the assistant farm manager at Vilicus. He is also in charge of a program that allows ranchers to rotate their cattle on the farm. Ranchers pay Vilicus for this “custom grazing” service. It’s a mutually beneficial process. Cattle get to eat nutrient-rich feed, which helps them to put on healthy weight. And rotating these cattle on cover crops, also helps Vilicus. (Cover crops are planted for the sole purpose of fostering soil health.) In the fields, cattle’s hooves and manure help aerate and build soil. After cows have spent time on the land, the soil is more fertile and the crop is more nutrient-rich, disease-resistant and drought resilient.
Now that John is an organic and regenerative farmer, he also integrates cattle on his land in the Golden Triangle. It’s not the first time cows have lived on his farm. In the 1940s, when John’s great aunt Violet was living there, she raised cattle with her husband as well.
John: Looking at the past generations, like we're not too far moved from this farm being a ranch more than a farm. And like one thing my great aunt violet used to always say was you need cows and farming to make a go of this place. And, I thought, you need two incomes, you know, to diversify your income, but really what she was saying, I think is that the ecosystem needs to be all together and working as one.
Torgerson (narrating): Letting his neighbors’ cattle graze on John’s cover crops and stubble fields after harvest is one way John is supporting a healthy ecosystem. He also does this by planting two cash crops at the same time, a cultural practice referred to as intercropping Indigenous people have been doing for generations. This year he’s seeding peas and barley together. The peas pull nitrogen from the atmosphere for the barley and the barley serves as a weed barrier and a trellis for the peas to grow up. To harvest the two crops he goes in with a combine that has a special header on the front called a stripper header that simultaneously strips the peas from their pods and pops the heads off the barley. Then he runs the mixed peas and barley through a gravity table that separates them so he can market the crops separately. This season John is also excited to try two new techniques for improving his soil health.
He purchased a tool called a compost extractor that extracts the living biology out of compost to apply while seeding. This helps feed the plant root the nutrients it needs to grow.
John: This year, I will be putting a liquid tank with the compost extract behind this toolbar. So it'll almost be a big train of tool pieces, and the liquid will come up and come right down into the furrow on all of these 72 openers.
Torgerson (narrating): He also bought a crimper roller a tool used to overpower weeds, that brings him closer to the “holy grail” of being a no till organic farmer.
I've heard conventional farmers say a downside to organic is that it requires farmers to disturb their soil more than conventional practices. When they're not spraying herbicides, farmers have to rip up the soil to kill weeds. Traditional tillage rips four inches into the web of plants and microorganisms underground which provides crops the nutrients they need. With the crimper roller John skips this practice.
He does this by planting a cover crop in the fall that covers the soil and prevents it from blowing away. The next spring, he seeds a cash crop directly into the growing cover crop and when the cover crop starts growing tall, he comes in with his crimper roller. The crimper roller rolls over the top of and then crimps the crop like an ‘80s hair crimper. The crimped down cover crop then creates a mulch that suppresses weeds, holds water, and continues to keeps the ground covered and cooler during the hot July days. This is ideal for the cash crop, or a crop that’s ultimately harvested and sold, which grows through this cozy bed of mulch then ripens. All these practices are trying to mimic more natural systems. They make crops more resilient to drought, and they are getting younger generations interested in agriculture while creating jobs for them to explore their interests.
John’s hired hand Peyton is one example of this. Peyton’s relationship with her hometown of Chester and how she grew more connected to the region’s agricultural heritage is something I was curious to learn more about.
Peyton: My name is Peyton Cole. I'm from Chester Montana. Born and bred and fed, I always tell people that they think that's funny. And I live in East Leger Montana.
The day John, Peyton and I overlapped at the farm, we took a break between interviews to get to know one another better and play a game of Sequence.
Paul: Okay, so Megan, what we're supposed to do is create a sequence of five. When teams we have to make two of them. Yeah. And the way that you do that is we're going to go around in a circle, and then you're going to play a card and put a token on it.
Torgerson (narrating): John and Peyton crushed my partner Paul and I the first few rounds, maybe it was luck or maybe it’s because they work together. But we redeemed ourselves in the end.
Paul: Remember the board!
Peyton: What happened? I was gonna lay the jack down. What if we do this? Is that cheating?
John: If we would have done that we would have won.
Peyton: I know but you had it here, so 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
John: I know but my…
Peyton: So we can’t really build off that.
John: So I should have probably laid here, but they weren't gonna win anyway. Then if you could have laid the Jack then we would have had it this way in one foul swoop.
Peyton: One foul swoop, hehe.
John: It would have been really cool, but we didn't do it. Good game guys.
Torgerson (narrating): Peyton was kind enough to shuttle me between the farm and my bed and breakfast in Chester during my visit. And I was excited to get to spend some more time with her.
Peyton: It is a nice break to have a girl around.
Megan: That’s nice to hear.
Torgerson (narrating): At five eleven-and-a-half, she’s a half an inch taller than me and though she’s only 25, she carries herself with the confidence and ease of someone beyond her years. As an older sibling Peyton comes across as responsible and committed, but she’s bursting with ideas.
Peyton: I don’t know if I would be able to pursue the passion projects that I have, if I wasn’t living here and had the support that I have now.
Torgerson (narrating): A lot of her passions, like reviving the Hi-Line Harvest Festival, involve music and agriculture. After an over 30-year hiatus, Peyton brought back Chester’s Hi-Line Harvest Festival. It’s a one-day festival that’s bringing small towns in North Central Montana together to celebrate agriculture through live music and reignite old traditions, like a foot race that involves racing army cots on wheels.
Peyton says growing up, she didn’t feel as close as she does now to the area’s farming community.
Peyton: My family was from Vietnam. And they made it to Chester, Montana, of all places, which is totally random. But there's a lot of rich history there. And I grew up in town. I felt kind of like an outsider in some ways. Growing up in a farming and ranching community, I didn't get to be a part of that. And I always felt kind of left out. So now that I'm farming and ranching now, it's almost like I'm filling a childhood void, being able to do something I never got to be a part of.
Torgerson (narrating): When she was younger, she was part of 4H, but as she grew up, she grew apart from the ag activities happening in her community.
Peyton: As I got older, I kind of got a little more disconnected from that and got involved with sports and then had to work a little bit more. And I don't know, high school was a really hard time for me. So I kind of resented my time here. I resented my family. I resented, I kind of generalize, the entire community. And that included farming and ranching, based on my own personal experiences, which had nothing to do with the farming and ranching community, which is unfortunate, but that has all changed. So it's kind of nice to be able to speak from that perspective.
Torgerson (narrating): Peyton’s not alone in her experience of resenting her small hometown. When I left Eastern Montana to attend college in Missoula, I feel like I left with a vengeance. I was so eager to find out who I was outside of this place that had shaped me and that had come to feel so small, that I rarely visited. It took me nearly a decade, and several moves around the country, before I became curious about the place and the stories I left behind.
Peyton also moved to Missoula after high school. At the University of Montana she studied entertainment management. She continued her passion for music, going on to work for Logjam Presents, the parent company for the KettleHouse Amphitheater, the Wilma and Top Hat music venues in Missoula. And she later served as the production manager for Beacon Ice House in Great Falls.
It was during the beginning of the pandemic when she found her way back to Chester.
Peyton: I was working in music and entertainment in Missoula, and one of my best friends Tamara, her mom had told her, “Hey, if Peyton needs a job, we know you know, she lost her job. If she needs some money, she can come work on the ranch.” And Tamara told me that in passing, and I thought she was kidding, but I was like, Hey, I would actually really love to do that. So before you know I moved from Missoula to Meissner’s farm and ranch on the Marias River a week later. And I had no idea what I was going to do. Julie Meissner had said, you know, “we might be working cows, you'll be in the greenhouses.” It was just kind of up in the air. I was just down to do whatever. So I worked in the two greenhouses she has. We ranched, that was a lot of fun. Working with cows, I really love that. I have a lot of fond memories of chasing calves in a pasture down by the river, or ripping around on a side by side. And then I cooked meals all harvest. We gardened all summer. I learned a lot. And it was a really great time for me considering the world was kind of crashing down. But that was kind of when the healing took place with me coming back home and getting in touch with my friends and family.
Torgerson (narrating): Peyton spent one season with the Meissners and then discovered John was looking for more long-term help. It was a good fit. This 2023 farm season marks her fourth season in agriculture and her third season working as John’s hired hand.
Peyton: John has been the older brother that I've never had. He's taught me so much. Like I told you, I feel like I'm a low key mechanic. I just know so much more now. And I feel very independent and totally capable of fixing my fuel line on my car when that goes out and crawling around in my car and doing that, you know, I just feel totally empowered and capable of doing anything. And I don't think I felt that way. Actually, I know I didn't feel that way before I started farming.
Torgerson (narrating): This sense of assuredness has helped Peyton to successfully produce the first Hi-Line Harvest Festival in years and to start planning for the next one happening this September. The festival has done more for Peyton than bolstering her resume. It’s helped her further heal her relationship with her hometown.
Peyton: Even though I had a lot of support growing up, I was a dumb high school kid making poor decisions. And those decisions reflected on me the most, even though there were good things about me, I did play sports, I was in extracurriculars, I did play piano, all those things. But because I made stupid decisions, that kind of felt like that became my identity. And that is also why I resented where I came from. So coming back, I've made a lot of changes in my life that have been really positive. And I've done a lot of really cool things, and have become really good at something that I want to share with people.
So the harvest festival was my way of showing my hometown, that this is what I do. And I'm really good at that. And I just want you guys to be proud, really. And so it was a redemption for me, I felt like that totally changed the trajectory of my identity and what I want to do and who I am within my own community. So yeah, it’s totally changed.
Torgerson (narrating): I was one of those kids who made decisions early on that reflected poorly on me too. But that was a long time ago, for both of us. And like the part Hi-Line Harvest Festival has played in Peyton’s journey, Reframing Rural has helped me heal my relationship to my past and my hometown. For me personally, it’s also been a way for me to celebrate my agricultural community, and others, to show I care about the issues affecting rural places and to share that while I’m not producing food, I have something to contribute.
So when I hear about Peyton coming back around to her home town and celebrating it through the healing power of music, it makes thrilled for her and for her community. Not only is she finding her own way to reconnect with her rural root, the Chester and Ledger community benefits from her talents and contributions. And I love that they’ve celebrated her generous spirit in this process.
Another way that Peyton is helping uplift the work of family farmers in Montana, is through her work with Montana Farmers Union. Peyton is the event coordinator for Montana Farmers Union, the oldest and largest family farm organization in the state. It preserves the agricultural way of life through education programs for youth and adults, by advocating member-driven policies and legislation at the state and federal level, and by supporting the development of producer-owned co-ops across the state. Through her role with Montana Farmers Union, Peyton has put together events like this year’s Women’s Conference which celebrated women’s strides in agriculture and the role of storytelling in advocating for women producers.
While Peyton, Paul, John and I are all part of Montana’s agricultural community, our identities and backgrounds vary widely. But bringing a wide variety of people together for the benefit of local family farms is common here in Montana, thanks to organizations like Montana Farmers Union.
For John and Paul, their membership in Montana Farmers Union is how they met and became friends. John was recently appointed as the associate director of Montana Farmers Union. And he and Paul both went through their Farmers Union Enterprises Leadership or FUEL program, which brings participants to different farms across the nation and trains them in how to effectively tell their story, a skill that comes in handy when speaking with legislators.
During my conversation with John and Paul I asked, what initially drew them to the organization.
Megan: Why did you want to get involved with agriculture on advocacy level?
Paul: Oh, just to have friends. Yeah, MFU has been a way for me to have friends, right? Shared purpose and a reason to meet and, and to work together and passion is a great foundation for friendship and deep relationships and what a great gift it is to be accepted into that, you know?
John: Yeah, it’s people that share the values that you share. And like you're forced to get together and make new friends. I just, I love that.
Paul: They share the values, but they have diverse practices and opinions. The Montana Farmers Union is not an organic organization. Neither is the National Farmers Union by any stretch, and that really, that really stretches me in a way to practice tolerance, and non-judgmental consideration and positive and constructive communication. That's really good for me.
John: Same. I mean, when I did the policy committee, for the first time, I came in there and was like, we need this for organic. We need this organic, we need this. And everyone on that policy committee was very tolerant of me and my opinions. And they took the time to let me realize that this isn't about me and my stuff. It's about the shared goal of family farms, and then I was able to kind of alright, what's good for everybody? And what are these things? And so that was a big learning experience.
Paul: Yeah, it's a great sort of microcosm to understand the value of coalition building to do grassroots policy with the farmers union, because, if a policy related to organic production can be presented and discussed and argued that it is not a threat to non-organic production, which there are many improvements we could make in public policy for both non-organic and organic production, that are not implicitly or explicitly a threat to the other way of doing things. If you can create that argument, then you can create allies out of what you know, the world and society wants to tell you or your opponents.
John: For so long, being organic and trying to be pitted against these people. And I think, you know, like Paul was saying, that's what they want out of you. And realizing like, you know, I don't know, their operation and what they're going through. And so it's really been a learning experience to find out about other operations, and then having, you know, a little bit of leeway, in my judgment, to know they're doing the best that they can.
I think every farmer really cares a lot. And you know, there's bigger issues. We're not all enemies with each other. It is these corporations and these people that are controlling markets and hurting family farms.
Torgerson: I appreciate John’s perspective on this. In some circles when I say I grew up on a farm, I get the feeling people think my family is part of the problem. Like because we farm conventionally, we don’t care for the land and we’re contributing to climate change. But they forget about the fact that we’re also feeding people and doing our best in a tough business. The same thing can come up when I say we raised cattle. Some people bring up methane omissions and a belief that being vegan is the only way to care about animals and the environment. They’re not thinking about the positive effects of having these animals move around prairie grasslands.
Growing up I don’t remember food production being so political. But John’s right, there are bigger issues than the debate over organic and non-organic farming, issues that are impacting all producers. Montana Farmers Union is still fighting for things like Right to Repair, to thwart severe restrictions on who can work on equipment imposed by manufacturers like John Deere and grant farmers the right to work on their own equipment. Or Country of Origin Labelling, without mandatory country of origin labeling, companies are misguiding consumers by stamping a USA product label on beef that’s been processed or packaged in the USA, but not necessarily raised here. The Big Four meatpackers lobbied to remove the mandatory country of origin labeling law to import cheaper meat from outside the U.S. which is undermining the market for American ranchers. There’s also the problem of corporations and billionaires like Bill Gates buying up farmland, which prohibits small family farms from building equity and sustainability into their businesses through land ownership.
Given all our conversation around the struggles and changes in agriculture, it was wonderful for me to have the two farmers I know the best join me at John’s farm. So I didn’t have to spend four hours in a tow truck hauling my car to Missoula, my parents, Renny and Russ came to John’s farm and picked me up after my last day of reporting. After sharing with John and Peyton stories about my farm, I was excited they had the opportunity to meet my parents.
When they arrived to pick me up, I remembered to ask them if the Henke farm sign I saw driving to John’s that first day were any relation to us.
John: So you might have came along the, like East West road that way. Yeah. Yeah. And then, yeah, to the right there. That's their place?
Megan: Are we related to those Henke’s?
Renny Torgerson: Yes, yes we are.
Russ Torgerson: My mother – they had family reunion a few years ago. And we were invited to it and everything, but we couldn't make it because we're busy farming yet. And but anyway, my mother, would be a first cousin to their dad I think.
John: Oh that’s not too far off.
Russ: Because they came from out our country before they moved out here in the early 50s.
Torgerson (narrating): Recalling that I had a photo of the old home place the Henke family lived in before they moved to Ledger on my website, I pulled out my phone to show John and Peyton.
Megan: So this is the Henke house that they lived in before they moved out this way. And that's a Henke that I'm, that we're related to.
John: That's crazy.
Megan: Yeah. This is like, this is a couple of miles from where I grew up.
Russ: Gosh small world isn’t it. Big state but a small world.
Torgerson (narrating): For my last night at the farm, John set up a carousel slide projector in his basement for my parents and I to see some old photos of his farm on Tiber Ridge. It was a chance for my parents and John to swap stories and for us to see how John’s farm has changed over the years. In his basement there was a pool table and guitars, and a bar top with photos of John’s dad fastened to its surface, a memorial to John’s Dad that sat in an old bar in Chester until it closed down and the owners’ donated it to the Wicks family. For an hour, John, Peyton, my parents and I watched attentively as John click through the most vibrantly colored slides from the 1950s.
John: My dad one Christmas, he got out all the slides and set it up, and he was like, “We're going through all of these.” And us kids were like “No!” And you’d sit there and they’d talk for 10 minutes over each one. (laughter)
Torgerson (narrating): John shared slides of his dad as a little boy at Christmas. There were photos of his great aunt Violet, and her wild husband Bud. There were harvest photos and haying photos. Photos of Tiber Dam, of open air tractors, a parade in Chester, and one of bunch of men chatting over a cigarette break after branding while leaning their string bean bodies against the old corrals that are still in John’s yard.
Seeing the photos reminded my dad of one of the photos from his childhood.
Russ: I was born in 52 and there's one picture of me. They're all sitting in the shade at harvest time underneath the shade of the truck. And I'm out in front of them. They were sitting there eating their lunch, you know. And I was probably two three years old, or I'm not any older than four or five anyway, you know, just a young shaver.
John: There's one of me and my grandpa's sitting like that eating sandwiches during summer fallow.
Torgerson (narrating): As I sat with two generations of farmers, listening to them share stories as we looked back at photos from a generation that came before us all, it was clear that farming has always been changing. And it will continue to do so. But in order for the career to remain viable for families, and for the next generation to heed this ancient call to grow food, I think they need to continue to find the time to play games, to take the boat down to the lake, to sit down, young and old, and share stories, and to celebrate milestones like harvest.
John and Peyton are good at that: at making farming fun. I think it’s something John’s family saw in their Dad, Russ. And it’s something that John’s Mom Morb can see in John today.
Morb: The one question you had about what I wished I could tell Russ today, and I – I would I would tell him that farming has made John happy.
And I think farming made Russ happy. Your whole family counts and it's all wrapped up into one. But if you get up every day, and you're looking forward to what you're going to be doing, and you know at night, if your favorite thing is to, hey, let's go out, let's go out and look at some fields. Let’s drive over there. Let's see what's over there. And as soon as winter's gone, and things are growing, and you know if you can get that going, along with all the stress, that's the peace of mind, you get. And just to see that John's got that makes a world of difference. And I think that's all Russ ever would have wanted for all of this.
My heartfelt gratitude to the Wicks family for sharing their story with me. Thank you to John, Kali and Morb and to Peyton Cole and Paul Neubauer.
Support for this episode comes from Montana Farmers Union, an organization 8dedicated to supporting farms, ranches, the people on the ground and the communities who surround them. Learn more at montanafarmersunion.com.
I’m your host Megan Torgerson and I reported, produced and edited this episode. Mary Auld was the story editor for this episode. And original music, mixing and additional editing was provided by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer at Hazy Bay Music.
Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC. Thank you for listening!