Q&A: John Tester, U.S. Senator and active farmer

The fact is, reports of farmer suicide are increasing, and we need to do something about it.

A farmer to his core, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) commented that residing in the U.S. Senate chamber for almost 12 hours one day during the recent impeachment trial was “like sitting on a tractor.” Agriculture is not far from his thoughts when working in Washington. “I believe strongly in the model of the citizen legislature that our framers set up, so I get back to Montana and farm every weekend,” he says. “It makes for long days in the spring, but it needs to get done. It’s a great break from Washington, D.C.”

Tester and his wife, Sharla, converted their farm to organic agriculture more than 30 years ago and currently grow several varieties of wheat along with barley, safflower, peas, and lentils.

SF: You have been pushing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on improving connectivity in rural America by providing up to $9 billion in Universal Service Fund support to carriers deploying advanced 5G services in the countryside.

JT: I have some serious reservations about the recently announced 5G Fund when so many places in rural America still lack 4G service – or any service at all. The fact is, the Federal Communications Commission has made promises to rural America about connectivity and infrastructure before – and it has broken nearly every one. So I’ve been on them about this, and I’m going to stay on them, because 5G is absolutely critical for rural America if we’re going to have precision agriculture.

SF: What is your reaction to President Trump’s proposed cuts to federal programs serving agriculture such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, crop insurance, conservation programs, and the Farm and Ranch Assistance Network?

JT: We need to tackle wasteful spending and our national debt, which has exploded over the past three years. But look, budgets reflect priorities, and this budget, as it sits, will be a death knell for family farm agriculture. Not only does it add $1 trillion to the debt, but also it slashes Medicare and health care for rural families, shortchanges rural infrastructure projects, and undoes the safety net that is so critical for production ag.

SF: What is the status of the Seedling Rural Resilience Act that you proposed last fall to help farmers and ranchers manage and reduce stress?

JT: The fact is, reports of farmer suicide are increasing, and we need to do something about it. My Seeding Rural Resilience Act, which I authored and then introduced with my fellow farmer Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, will provide support for farmers working through the stress that can come with production agriculture. This legislation institutes a voluntary mental health training for all farm-facing USDA employees so they can help de-escalate tensions and connect folks with resources when they need them. It will also work to reduce the stigma around getting mental health care in rural America and direct the Secretary of Agriculture to assemble a mental health task force that will determine the best ways to respond to farm and ranch mental stress. Farmers and ranchers are not the type to sit around talking about their feelings, but the stress they face is real, and if these resources help even one producer get through a tough day, it will be worth it.

SF: What are the biggest legislative challenges facing rural America and agriculture in the next five years?

JT: Health care is the No. 1 issue facing rural America. We’ve got to make sure that rural health centers and hospitals stay open, because when these facilities close, it can be the end for small communities. 

We’ve got to continue supporting agricultural research that improves the bottom line for production agriculture. 

We have to confront the fact that our climate is changing – the science is clear on that. Last year, Congress authorized $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars – more than 20% of the Department of Agriculture’s discretionary spending – for disaster payments to producers. That number will only get bigger unless we get to work on solving this problem. 

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