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Hail hit Yellowstone County, Mont., on Aug. 11, 2019, devastating crops and causing property damage. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

No Mr. Perdue, farmers are not whiners

The storm moved in while we were eating pizza. Bluish-purple clouds, followed by wind and then rain. We were going to try to get ahead of the storm and drive back to my parents' house before it got bad. But by the time we got to the door of the pizza place, the rain had gotten so heavy that we decided to stay put.

The hail storm on Aug. 11, 2019, will go down as one of the worst to hit Yellowstone County, Mont., from a property damage and crop damage standpoint. We didn't know that yet as we sat there at a table in our favorite pizza place, watching little pellets of ice crash into cars and buildings, pushed like bullets by the violent wind.

Maybe it'll miss the farm, I remember my mom or my grandma saying to my dad. Dad smiled sadly, the memories of all the other hail storms that had hit his fields and of some that could have but didn't swirling around us. "It won't miss us," he said.

After a hail storm hit Yellowstone County, Mont., on Aug. 11, 2019, Jeff Michael's barley fields were a total loss. He was right. When the storm calmed down and we drove home, we found barley fields that looked like they had been combined, little bare straws sticking up from the ground. Just an hour earlier, plump kernels, nearly ready for harvest, had hung from those stalks. Now, a season of work was gone in the blink of an eye.

Dad didn't say much as we sat in the dark that night, waiting to see if the power would come back on. His it-is-what-it-is attitude likey matched that of many farmers in the area. There is no undo button on Mother Nature, and you learn when you farm that you take what you get, good or bad. Farming is no place for histrionics. The stoicism of most farmers comes from years of learning that letting your emotions get too high or too low won't help.

That's what makes Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's comments at Minnesota Farmfest in Redwood County, Minn., four days prior to that Montana hail storm so tonedeaf. "What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar," he told a crowd of farmers.

Perdue, you'll remember, is part of a Trump administration that seems dead set on destroying U.S. agriculture, with an ill-advised trade war, an Environmental Protection Agency more interested in supporting oil refiners than advancing biofuels and a plan to get experienced ag researchers to leave the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That he could sit in front of farmers who are struggling to maintain their livelihoods, their homes and their way of life — at least in part due to the actions of him and his boss — and call them whiners shows how truly out of touch he and this administration are.

I met and interviewed Perdue in March 2018. I found him to be pleasant and knowledgeable, and he didn't falter at even my toughest questions. But anyone who has been around agriculture knows the farmers in our country are struggling mightily, from normal up-and-down cycles, weather problems and the administration's actions. To make fun of them in their moment of need is beyond the pale.

Mr. Perdue, if this makes it onto your desk, I hope it makes you think. I hope it returns you to your farm roots and reminds you what it's like to rely on the land. And really, I hope it spurs you to realize that it's time for you to move on from the USDA.

Schlecht lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

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