The pull of ag policy: Self-taught farmer now considered a policy expert
BROADVIEW, Mont. — When a newspaper editorial board started asking deep questions about agriculture, Max Baucus didn't try to answer them. Instead, the former U.S. senator and ambassador to China pointed the editors and reporters to Michelle Erickson-Jones.
"She's the expert," Baucus says.
Erickson-Jones farms with her father, husband and brother right outside of Broadview, 30 miles from Billings. She's the fourth generation on the farm and the past-president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
Erickson-Jones didn't take a traditional route to the farm. Now in her mid-30s, she already had a successful off-farm career before returning to Montana in 2012. But since joining the farm, she's found her niche in agriculture policy work and continues to look for ways to keep the Erickson Farms going to the fifth generation — the two sons who join her most days in her work.
Finding her place
Erickson-Jones has a dual master's of business administration in mediation and dispute resolution and operations management. She worked in transportation and operations management first for UPS and then for Amazon. She lived in Seattle and enjoyed her life there, where she could catch a Mariners game or a Broadway show.
But she couldn't shake the interest in agriculture that took hold when she was a small child. And when her dad, Bart Erickson, took on a lease that put him over the acreage he could handle by himself, she decided to move back to Montana and join the operation.
Now Erickson-Jones farms with her father and her husband, Travis Jones. Her brother, Mikel Erickson, recently joined the farm part-time, too. They raise winter wheat, spring wheat, malt barley, oil seeds, corn, alfalfa and forage. She and Travis also raise cattle, with a 150 head cow-calf operation.
Her sons, Will, 3, and Tate, 2, usually are close at hand as she works. The two blonde blurs of activity play nearby as the work goes on much of the time, though their grandmothers take them when they can. Having the boys with her can be difficult, Erickson-Jones says. They don't always understand that work has to be done. But it's fun to see them experience farm life.
"It's also really rewarding to have them with you, to be able to see them all day," she says.
Between the farm and her family, Erickson-Jones seems to have plenty on her plate. But where she truly has found her niche came from a chance she took on somewhat as a lark.
After she returned to the farm, Erickson-Jones joined the Montana Grain Growers Association, a group to which her father has long belonged but was not active in. When ballots came in the mail to elect directors, she saw that her district had an empty slot.
"So I thought, well that sounds like fun," she said. "That's really what I thought: That looks like fun."
By putting her name down on her ballot and her dad's, Erickson-Jones became a director of the Montana Grain Growers Association. She recently finished up serving as the president of the organization — the first woman to fill the position.
"I elected myself to the Grain Growers board," she says.
In farm policy, she believes she found her calling. She's talked on trade, mental health and on the farm bill. She's made connections with farmers across the nation and has become comfortable giving farmers a voice. Karen Heyneman, board member of Farmers for Free Trade and a Whitetail, Mont., rancher, called Erickson-Jones a "fearless warrior" for family farms.
Heynemann's comments are echoed by Gordon Stoner, a past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. He recalls being invited a few years back to participate in a roundtable discussion in Billings. Before the roundtable, he had met Erickson-Jones only once and didn't know her well. But when the questions began, her depth of understanding and knowledge floored him.
"Michelle stepped up," Stoner says. "And I'm sitting there just in awe, and kind of, 'go girl, go.'"
He says Erickson-Jones's ability to research and come up with facts and data to support her position are among her strong points.
"She is just a talented, talented lady," he says. "I feel like I've learned an awful lot from Michelle."
In 2017, Erickson-Jones started Big Sky FarmHer, a blog chronicling farm life and explaining farm policy. She has testified on both the state and local level and encourages others not to be intimidated by the thought of getting involved. She has done her research on the issues to become the expert Baucus calls her but says she "started at zero."
"You certainly don't have to have a level of expertise to be involved," she says.
Stoner says that while he doesn't use social media, he is impressed by the work Erickson-Jones has done in that realm and the influence she has had because of it.
"She reaches so many people with her perspective and encouraging young people to be involved in ag and take an interest in policy and not just accept that the government shows up and tells us how to farm," he says.
A future in policy?
Spring planting has been difficult in Montana, even with half the Erickson Farms land on sandy soil. They finished planting spring wheat April 26, just before a rainstorm that likely knocked many in the area out of the field. The planting problems follow a tough calving season, where the heifers calved in the midst of one February storm and the cows in a second.
Erickson-Jones hopes the farm can keep going to the fifth generation but acknowledges the difficulties that come with the occupation. She has been seeking some type of off-farm job, so far without success in finding the right fit.
Her past career has given her different perspectives. She's worked for someone else and had people working for her. She worked on Amazon Fresh and can call on her time working for the grocery startup now that she's back on the other side of the supply chain. But finding a position that matches her skill-set and allows her to work in Montana has been difficult. Still, she says she will keep looking.
"(The) wheat (price) right now has a 'three' in front of it," she explains.
And whether it's in a full-time job or as a volunteer, Erickson-Jones hopes to continue working in the policy arena. She'd love to someday be president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, though she says doing it right now might not be realistic with her family demands. She'll be on the Montana Grain Growers Association board for a couple more years before being termed out.
"I really like to go back to Washington and tell farm stories and work with our policymakers and be a voice even on the local stage," she says. "It's been really rewarding."