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Published August 05, 2013, 09:26 AM

The man from Moccasin, Mont.

Bing Von Bergen, a Montana wheat farmer, is leading the National Association of Wheat Growers as president in 2013. It's been an eventful year.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

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, Mont.

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, D.C.-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 himself 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 of agriculturalists focus on one or the other.

When Agweek visited, haying was well under way and the start of winter wheat harvest was two or three weeks ago. Pastures, hayfields and crops all were benefitting from heavy late-spring rains that recharged soil moisture.

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.

GMO wheat field

Von Bergen’s NAWG presidency was complicated by the controversial, high-profile discovery of GMO wheat in an Oregon field.

“I’ve been involved with it since Day Two (the day after discovery of the GMO wheat was announced). But I don’t know any more about it than the rest of you. What’s been released to the press is all I know,” he says.

“To be quite honest, I don’t know if they’ll ever solve what happened. But so far, what they’ve found is, it was contamination on one field, one farm. That’s it,” he says.

NAWG supports the development of GMO wheat.

“We believe it’s necessary to feed the world,” Von Bergen says.

Eventually, there will be two markets, one for GMO wheat and the other for nonGMO wheat, he says.

Von Bergen has read several books that are critical of GMO food.

“Whichever side you’re on, you should learn both sides,” he says. “I think if they (opponents of GMO food) learn both sides, they’ll realize it’s not as horrible as they think. It (GMO technology) is just speeding up what nature is doing anyway.”

‘It should be done already’

Von Bergen once served as vice president and then as president of the Montana Association of Wheat Growers. Holding those two positions also made him a member of NAWG’s board of directors.

He later served as chairman of NAWG’s domestic and trade policy committee, a position that strengthened his knowledge of many key issues facing wheat growers.

Eventually, other NAWG members encouraged him to get on the organization’s leadership track that culminates in the one-year presidency.

“It’s a pretty big commitment. A lot of people just don’t have the time,” he says.

Von Bergen describes himself as “a reluctant leader. I think most of us at NAWG are. Not all.”

The presidency “turned out to be more of a commitment than I thought. We lost our CEO. So I was acting CEO, which I didn’t envision when I first said yes,” he says.

Nor did he anticipate spending so much time and effort on the next farm bill.

“I shouldn’t be doing this. It should be done already. This has been dragging on for three years. It’s real frustrating,” he says.

The problem is, “we’re so polarized in Congress. We’re so left and so right. There’s the unwillingness on the fringes to compromise. Unfortunately, the fringes have grown,” he says.

Even so, Von Bergen is optimistic that a new farm bill will be approved.

“I still believe in our system,” he says.

Many members of Congress continue to pursue sensible farm policies, he says.

Von Bergen notes that he rents nearby farmland from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and occasionally runs into Hoeven in Washington, D.C.

“He’s a very good senator. You’re fortunate to have him,” Von Bergen says to his visitors from North Dakota.

Hoeven says Von Bergen is a “good guy, good farmer” and an effective leader for wheat growers.

Plugging along

Von Bergen will harvest wheat in August, weather permitting. He’ll have help from his wife and a hired man, as well as his son.

NAWG leaders try to avoid traveling on association business during harvest, so Von Bergen is optimistic that he’ll be in Montana to help, too.

“Between us, we’ll get it done,” he says.

On the morning of Agweek’s visit, Von Bergen has a full day ahead of him. He needs to spray some of his crops and prepare for a seed business tour the following day, among other tasks.

“Well, I’ve got until 10 (twilight) to finish spraying,” he says with a shrug. “I’ll just keep at it and it’ll get done in the end.

“That’s what I’ve always found, both in farming and this year with NAWG. No matter how busy you are, things work out when you keep plugging along.”

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