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The Forgotten Westerners: 'East of Billings'

Beyond the hipster havens of Bozeman and Jackson Hole, the pain of small towns is real. MoJo's new columnist Alexis Bonogofsky will be sharing their struggles

Cowboys set off to check their livestock on the high rolling plains. They do it for real. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Cowboys set off to check their livestock on the high rolling plains. They do it for real. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Growing up, if a farmer needed a tractor tire changed after hours or on weekends, they’d call our house. My dad put on his uniform and I’d hop in the truck and we’d drive miles on gravel roads to the farms and ranches around Billings. 

Farmers and ranchers don’t work eight to five jobs, so most of these service calls happened when my dad was supposed to be off work. Planting, harvesting, cutting, and baling couldn’t wait. The tires needed changing when they needed changing, sometimes in the middle of the night. 

Although he worked his entire life in a tire store, and grew up mostly in Billings, he was a descendant of North Dakota farmers and understood what needed to happen on a farm and when it needed to happen. He also understood the consequences if something didn’t get fixed when it needed to get fixed. 

He had a foot in both worlds. One in the largest urban center in the state and one in the fields and pastures of Montana and North Dakota’s shrinking rural communities. When he was young, these communities were still thriving. They had their own grocery stores, butcher shops, full schools and proud communities. They produced food for people in urban centers and provided for themselves. 

By the time he was taking me around to change tractor tires, the farm crisis had decimated many family farms and ranches throughout the midwest and yes, even Montana. Farmers faced record indebtedness, unstable prices, declining land values and drought. There were thousands of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Many people in rural communities lost everything. A study conducted during that time reported 913 male farmers killed themselves in the 1980's in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
There were thousands of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Many people in rural communities lost everything. A study conducted during that time reported 913 male farmers killed themselves in the 1980s in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
Fast forward to today and the situation in Montana’s rural communities has not improved much and there doesn’t seem to be much political effort being put into reversing the decline. Proposed solutions by politicians usually involve some mix of bringing in a big extractive industry or crafting huge trade deals with foreign countries. Both options leave little agency to local communities. We end up being tossed along with the wind gusts brought by a global economy.

Somehow we haven’t learned the simple fact that large corporations won’t, can’t and don’t save us. They don’t care about the plight of rural Montana. If they could do their mining, burning, cutting or whatever else they do with only robots, they would.

As I travel around Montana I am struck by the growing divisions I see between the people who live in our urban centers and those who live in or around the small communities that you find along the highways and gravel roads. This division is not a point to gloss over quickly. Our rural communities are struggling and if there is much concern about this in Montana’s urban centers, I have yet to see it. 

People in Montana’s growing urban communities tend to see the open lands in Montana as a playground for biking, hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. On their way to recreate they pass through dead or dying towns and abandoned farm houses and give it little thought. 
People in Montana’s growing urban communities tend to see the open lands in Montana as a playground for biking, hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. On their way to recreate they pass through dead or dying towns and abandoned farm houses and give it little thought. 
They don’t know what the farm crisis of the 1980s was or how it fundamentally changed America for the worse. They don’t know how our Democrat and Republican politicians utterly failed to address the crisis and by doing so facilitated the corporate takeover of American agriculture and the destruction of our rural communities. We are still suffering the consequences of the farm crises and its impact on rural America - enter Donald Trump. 

These dead and dying towns are a geography of grief and loss. 

At best, when I talk to people in cities, I often find an indifference to the experiences of rural Montana or at worst, disdain.  But no one can escape that all of us, no matter where we live, are living because there are people who spend their lives growing us food. Their lives and the future of their farms and ranches and the health of those lands should be of interest to everyone. 
Be it rural Montana, Wyoming or smalltowns scattered across a dozen western states, the pace may be slower but the worries about communities being lost to modernity are real. A pervasive fear is parents struggling to help their kids achieve a better life but losing them to a big town and never to return.  Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Be it rural Montana, Wyoming or smalltowns scattered across a dozen western states, the pace may be slower but the worries about communities being lost to modernity are real. A pervasive fear is parents struggling to help their kids achieve a better life but losing them to a big town and never to return. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
This is not an attempt to romanticize rural Montana or Wyoming, far from it. Land is being degraded and destroyed in our working landscapes. The problems in agriculture are staggering and hard to look at. We are losing our topsoil at alarming rates. At the same time some Montana soil is turning acidic due to over use of chemical fertilizer. If you’re not alarmed by what you just read, you should be.

This is an attempt to bring attention to a division that will destroy the Montana that we all love.  If you think I am using hyperbole to make a point, I’m not. The inability to understand each other or even attempt to understand is causing political polarization that may be irreparable. 

Part of me thinks it is too late. The urban-rural disconnect and mutual distrust provided fertile ground for outside political interests and money to influence our elections from groups that do not have our best interests in mind. It provides a platform for politicians to use grief and loss to further their own political careers and encourage fear, hate and anger in communities and between communities. 

But as Wendell Berry has said, “we can only start from where we are.” Big problems don’t necessarily have big solutions. There is comfort in looking at this issue in the face and rolling up our sleeves to address it. We must take responsibility for our communities and ourselves. We must think for ourselves and resist attempts by some politicians to divide us further. 
Mother nature, global commodity markets and isolation punishes those who are not keenly plugged in to better ways of being sustainable.  A goat farmer, blue-collar daughter, wildlife conservationist and documentary photographyer, Bonogofsky says there's a human authenticity present in many rural communities lacking in the towns aswell with recreation-minded lifestyle pilgrims. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Mother nature, global commodity markets and isolation punishes those who are not keenly plugged in to better ways of being sustainable. A goat farmer, blue-collar daughter, wildlife conservationist and documentary photographyer, Bonogofsky says there's a human authenticity present in many rural communities lacking in the towns aswell with recreation-minded lifestyle pilgrims. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
Our working landscapes are as important as our wild landscapes. Our rural communities are as important as our urban communities. What happens in our rural communities impacts us all. None of these statements are negotiable to me. 

This is the task before all of us no matter where we live. We need to learn each other’s language. We need to have affection for each other’s places and like my father, we need our feet firmly planted in both worlds. 

Alexis Bonogofsky
About Alexis Bonogofsky

Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, community organizer, goat and sheep rancher, writer and photographer who lives and works along the Yellowstone River south of Billings. For a decade she managed the Tribal Lands Partnership Program for the National Wildlife Federation. She started her blog East of Billings in 2013 to bring attention to issues facing eastern and rural Montana. She is a founding member of the national sportswomen's group Artemis and is working to help women and men learn to hunt, fish and get outdoors as well as be effective advocates for public lands, open spaces and wildlife. In 2014, Alexis was awarded the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. She is also on the board of the directors of the national pipeline safety organization, the Pipeline Safety Trust.
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