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Jonathan Knutson, Forum News Service, Published August 09 2013

Mont. man leads national wheat growers group

MOCCASIN, Mont. – It’s the kind of mid-July morning that farmers in central Montana dream of. The day is cool and clear, and a gentle breeze caresses thriving fields of still-green wheat.

Bing Von Bergen is far too experienced to take for granted that the wheat harvest, still weeks away, will be a good one. His lifetime of experience also tells him to enjoy the morning nonetheless.

“We’ll sure take a day like this. We remember a lot of summers when the crop was burning up by this time,” says Von Bergen, who farms near Moccasin.

The day is noteworthy in another way, too. Von Bergen is at home on the farm, not off in Washington, D.C., tending to his duties as 2013 president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

The Washington-based organization works with 21 affiliated associations and many partners on a wide range of issues, including federal farm policy and environmental regulation.

Von Bergen has been a regular visitor to the nation’s capital this year to promote wheat farmers’ interests in the next farm bill. He also pulled double-duty at NAWG headquarters there, temporarily serving as the organization’s CEO after former CEO Dana Peterson resigned for personal reasons earlier this year.

The association named Jim Palmer its new CEO in early May, reducing some of the pressure on Von Bergen. But ongoing efforts to pass a new farm bill have forced Von Bergen to make still more trips to Washington.

He chuckles when asked how many times he’s gone there this year.

“I’ve lost track. But I know I’ve spent 68 days in Washington, D.C., during my presidency,” he says.

To reach the nation’s capital, he drives to the airport in Great Falls, Mont., 80 miles west of Moccasin. The air trip often involves stops in Salt Lake City or Minneapolis.

“When I leave here at 6 in the morning, I usually get there (Washington, D.C.) at 2:30 in the afternoon. So, a one-day meeting for me is usually two days, sometimes three, depending on flight schedules,” he says.

No complaining from Von Bergen, though.

“It’s a commitment I made,” he says.

‘Quintessential’ grower

Von Bergen is “the quintessential wheat farmer,” says Erik Younggren, a Hallock, Minn., farmer and 2012 NAWG president.

Wheat is Montana’s dominant crop and plays a crucial role in Von Bergen’s farm, Younggren says.

Von Bergen farms 4,300 acres. He raises spring wheat, winter wheat, barley and peas. About 900 acres are summer fallowed.

Von Bergen is a third-generation farmer. Though his father and grandfather farmed, he’s not on the original farm.

“My dad’s place was separate from my granddad’s, and my place is separate from my dad’s place,” Von Bergen says.

His sister and brother-in-law farm his father’s place.

Von Bergen joined the Army right after high school and later attended college. He began farming 34 years ago.

“I don’t think I would have gone into farming if my dad wasn’t a farmer,” he says.

Getting into farming today is extremely difficult without an “in” from a family member who farms, he says.

“It’s not impossible. But the capital requirements are so high,” he says.

Von Bergen and his wife, Lois, have two children. One, a college senior, eventually could join the family farming operation.

“I hope he does. I’ve never seen opportunities in farming like the ones today,” Bing Von Bergen says.

With so many farmers nearing retirement, more land will become available for young farmers, he says.

Ask Von Bergen his own age and he responds with self-effacing humor: “I’m 59. The average age of U.S. farmers is 58. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been above average at anything.”

Competing crops

Crops such as corn and soybeans have taken acreage away from land in the Upper Midwest that traditionally was planted to wheat. Even in Montana, where the soil and climate are well-suited to wheat, farmers are planting more dry peas and corn.

This year, Montana farmers planted an estimated 425,000 acres of dry peas, up from 32,000 acres in 2003.

To put the 425,000 acres in perspective, however, consider that Montana farmers planted an estimated 5.6 million acres of wheat this year. Only Kansas (9.1 million acres) and North Dakota (7.7 million acres) have more wheat acres.

“There will always be a place for wheat. And it will always be the predominant crop in certain places of the nation,” Von Bergen says.

Farmers will continue to grow it “because there will always be demand for wheat. It’s the staple food supply for a lot of people in the world,” he says.

Surrounded by mountains

Moccasin – population about 160, elevation about 4,200 feet – is ringed by seven mountain ranges. One is the Moccasin Mountains, from which the town draws its name.

In a pattern familiar to anyone who knows the rural Upper Midwest, Moccasin has struggled since its school closed in 1966.

“Within a year, we lost our bar and our grocery store, too. The town essentially disappeared,” Von Bergen says.

Several nearby towns, however, are doing well, he notes.

Today, Moccasin has three businesses, including Heartland Seed Co., owned by Von Bergen and Steve Grove. The two have known each other since elementary school.

“My dad had cows. I decided I didn’t want any. So, this (the seed business) is my cows,” Von Bergen says.

Agriculture in the Moccasin area is divided roughly evenly between ranching and farming. Some producers have both crops and cattle, although a growing number focus on one or the other.

Von Bergen’s seed plant opened in 1993. Most of its customers are within 30 or 40 miles of Moccasin, “but we’ll go out farther, to 150-200 miles. We’re dead-center in the state,” Von Bergen says.

The seed business handles spring wheat, winter wheat, alfalfa and peas – “pretty much whatever the customer wants,” he says.

Dave Strouf, who also has known Von Bergen since elementary school, manages the seed business.

Though Von Bergen sometimes pokes fun at himself, “he’s an extremely astute businessman,” Strouf says.

Even with his NAWG duties, Von Bergen “keeps on top of what’s happening here,” Strouf says.

Jonathan Knutson writes for AgWeek