Bozeman, MONTANA—Having five selected Montana Farm Bureau members meet with federal agencies, elected officials, and the American Farm Bureau headquarters staff led to a productive and exciting trip for the MFBF Washington Fly-In. This annual event provides an opportunity for farmers and ranchers from the Treasure State to interact with elected officials, high-ranking Congressional staff, and relevant regulatory agencies and gain a better understanding of how government works. The trip included meetings with the House Ag Committee staff, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the House Committee on Natural Resources, and all of Montana’s Congressional offices. The group also enjoyed touring the extraordinary U.S. Capitol Building, several Smithsonian museums, and many other popular sites in our nation’s capital, such as the White House and the Library of Congress.

The five members who were accompanied by MFBF’s Senior Director of Governmental Affairs Nicole Rolf and Legislative Assistant Sage Zook included MFBF Vice President Gary Heibertshausen, Huntley sugar beet farmer Greg Gabel, East Helena cattle rancher Mark Diehl, District 3 Director Kris Descheemaeker and Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee member Bronya Willmore. 

Gabel shared a compelling message with the staff of the House Ag Committee. “Montana Farm Bureau invited several other state Farm Bureaus to join us. As expected, we emphasized that the farm bill is not only for farm security but plays a strong role in national security. I asked about increasing the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) rate, especially for sugar. If the co-op can borrow more money, it gives the farmer more flexibility.” 

The Army veteran explained to the committee that the recent Ag Census showed that the number of beginning farmers has increased 11 percent over the past year. “That is a great statistic, but we need to increase the loan amount we give new farmers and veterans. Currently, the cap is $400,000, but with rising land and equipment costs, it does not take much to get to $400,000. Agriculture ties in well with transitioning from the military, and raising the loan amount will help make those veterans more successful."

Vice President Heibertshausen said a meeting with APHIS Administrator Dr. Michael Watson and Deputy Administrator Dr. Mark Davidson covered funding for assistance in mitigating the severe grasshopper infestation in the West. 

“Everyone is waiting to find out what their budget is going to be as dictated by the FY 2024 funding bills,” the Alzada rancher noted. “It is challenging for the agencies to make any plans with the financial uncertainty. Even with the best-case funding, their budget is far below what they need to treat grasshoppers sufficiently in Montana and other hot spots across the West. We tried to figure out how else grasshopper eradication could be funded."

Heibertshausen said a tangible takeaway from the trip was the importance of bringing a group to Washington, D.C., to tell personal stories to members of Congress, committee staff, and agencies about how policies affect them. 

“Everyone we talked to was willing to listen to us,” he added. “We presented the facts regarding how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new proposal to remove agriculture from wildlife refuges will be harmful to individual ranchers and wildlife alike—in fact, Bronya explained how such changes would be devastating to her family ranch--and Greg made the case for how important a veterans’ package is in the farm bill.”  

Lewistown rancher Kris Descheemaeker echoed Heibertshausen. "Our meeting with APHIS regarding grasshoppers and their impact made an impression. It was apparent that the administrators do not meet with agriculture people very often, and it made an impact for them to hear from people who have boots on the ground. It was impressive to meet with agency personnel at that level.”

She explained that the most significant value of the Fly-In is the personal contacts made and the ability to meet face-to-face. “You can give out business cards and tell them to contact you with any questions. Everyone we met with said thank you and told us how much they appreciate our coming to Washington.” 

"As an organization, Farm Bureau is devoted to advocating for our members with our elected officials and agency personnel regularly. Bringing farmers and ranchers face to face with these officials is extremely valuable, which is why this Fly-In is so important. We want the people in D.C. to know that the issues we talk to them about are so important that farmers and ranchers are willing to trek across the country to tell their stories," explained Nicole Rolf, MFBF senior director of governmental affairs. “Nobody is better able to tell their story than an actual farmer or rancher, and it is an honor to bring these members to D.C. and coordinate these interactions.” 

Despite their hectic schedule, the group managed to have a personal tour of the Capitol, a visit to the Canadian Embassy, and a visit to the Library of Congress.

When the Fly-In wrapped up, Heibertshausen and Gabel joined Chouteau County President Jess Bandel to participate in the AFBF Issues Advisory Committee Meetings, which took place February 15-16 at the AFBF Office in Washington.