U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, as the only farmer in the U.S. Senate, understands farmers like no one else in the U.S. Congress.
Tester, a third-generation organic farmer, farms while he legislates on an 1,800-acre farm north of Great Falls near Big Sandy, of which 100-200 acres are being planted to an alfalfa interseeded into spring wheat crop for soil health.
His grandparents homesteaded the family’s century farm in 1912. Since his grandfather was one of several siblings, he knew there wouldn’t be room for him on his family’s farm, so he headed west and settled on the Tester family farm.
“My grandfather was raised on a farm in the West Fargo, N.D., area,” Tester said. “And my grandparents settled where we’re at right now, which is in north central Montana in a place that’s a whole lot different than the Red River Valley, which is where they were from.”
If his grandfather were alive today, there is one question Tester would like to ask him.
“The one question I would ask him is why there? Now, we’ve been here for over a hundred years. So he picked a good spot. But the truth is he could have stopped anywhere along the line,” Tester said. “He could’ve stopped at Circle, he could have kept going and stopped at Superior. But the truth is, he picked a good spot and we have supported two families and bought four quarters of land during the time that we’ve been here.”
Making a living for young ag students
Tester hopes young ag students realize there is a way to make a smaller-acreage farm work.
“You don’t have to have 5, 10, 15, 20,000 acres. If we put the idea into kids’ heads that are trying to get into agriculture, that they need a whole lot of acres to make it, we’re going to continue to see young people leaving agriculture,” Tester said.
Tester was one of three boys growing up on the family farm his grandfather chose. He knew he wanted to farm at an early age.
“I told my Dad, ‘I want to run the farm,’ and that’s the way it turned out to be,” he said.
Meanwhile, a class trip during his time in school may have broadened his horizons, and showed him a way he might be able to help farmers – and other rural folks – in the future.
“In 1973, when I was in junior high school, they loaded us into a bus and took us to the State Legislature. You may think this is kind of corny, but we got to the Legislature, and I got to meet with some of the folks that served in the Legislature,” Tester said. “I got to see these guys and gals in action, and I was impressed that it was the first time I'd ever been in a Capitol in Montana.”
It was the first time he had ever been in any Capitol, for that matter. Tester was impressed with what these Montana legislators were accomplishing for folks.
“And I said, ‘one of these days I’m going to try to get in this body.’ I graduated from college five years after that,” Tester said. “And then 20 years after my graduation from college, we ran for the State Senate and my wife will tell you this one, when we got married, I told her that I was going to do this at some point in time in my life. So it was kinda part of the wedding vows, but it really wasn’t.”
Tester graduated from the College of Great Falls with a bachelor of science in music with a K-12 endorsement.
He taught elementary music at F.E. Miley Elementary and was later elected to the Big Sandy School Board. in Big Sandy for a couple of years, and they also took over the farm, maybe after college.
Tester’s parents knew to diversify
Tester admired what his parents were able to do on the farm. His parents knew from the start that farming crops didn’t always pay enough, and that they would need to diversify.
“You've got to diversify your income. If you don't diversify your income, you tend to not be in business very long,” Tester said.
His parents looked around and saw a need for custom butchering and started a successful butcher shop on the farm.
“My folks always had a butcher shop on a farm. They did custom work from probably the early 50s and built a butcher shop in ’63,” he said.
While Tester knew – and saw – that operating a custom butcher shop was hard, hard work, as an adult he knew he “could make more money cutting meat on the weekend than he could teaching.”
It was a difficult decision, but one that made economic sense for his family. Tester stopped teaching and he and his wife, Sharla, operated the custom butcher shop, while farming at the same time.
“It is a true family farm and it still is,” Tester said.
In 1998, Tester was elected to the Montana Senate, and in 2006, Montana folks elected Tester to the U.S. Senate in 2006. He was re-elected in 2012 and again in 2018.
Tell us about your farm:
We raise several different kinds of wheat – hard red winter wheat, hard white spring wheat and hard red spring wheat and a lot of peas.
We use peas as a fertilizer as we converted to organics starting in 1986. So we’ve been organic for a long time. I basically put about half the farm into peas and in fact, I am just getting some peas cleaned right now as we speak. I normally plant safflower.
I’ve got some winter wheat in now, and if it makes it through the winter, that will be good.
This year, I’m going to plant some hard red wheat, some hard white wheat, some barley, and some peas. I am going to put some red safflower in this year.
I’m going to interseed some alfalfa this year into spring wheat, which I haven’t done for a number of years.
I will take 10 percent of the (acreage) farm (140 acres), and put it into alfalfa, rotate it around the farm, and I plant to hay it.
If we have a normal spring where we get normal moisture, I’ll pull the spring wheat off the top and then I’ll cut the hay off it for about three years. Then we’ll break it up and put it in another part of the farm.
Alfalfa is the most marvelous plant God ever created because it sends down those tap roots and those roots get as big as your thumb. It really does help the soil mellow, and it also pumps in a lot of nitrogen. I have found it very effective in helping control the weeds, such as wild oats.
Question: Is weed control tough in an organic system?
Tester: It is about rotations. My rotation is pretty simple right now, because of this job. I can’t run through eight or 10 seeds because that all takes time when you’re planting in the spring. I just don’t have the time in the spring to get that all done or the time in August to get it harvested.
I used to put in a lot of lentils, but in an organic system, you’ve got to swath them and then you’ve got to pick them up and it has to be done. If the wind blows, you are out of luck. But we raised red lentils in 1988, 1989, at the same time that we were cutting meat.
At the time, I had the ability to have some flexibility with our income stream so I could take some chances that makes a big difference in production agriculture anymore. It has been this way for 40, 50 years.
The margins are so slim that you can't afford to take any chances. That’s what helped me make the conversion to organics. And that’s what helped me fool around with some alternate crops.
I served on the FSA board for a number of years and Gene McKeever (now passed) was a member of that board. Gene said to me, “There are a million different ways to farm and if the farming method you use, if it works for you and you can stay financially sustainable, that’s the method you need to use,” and I really believe that. My neighbors may do it differently, and it works for them.