Wyoming coal shutdown impacts everyone, including ag
Wyoming’s Campbell County residents are worried about their future. The coal industry has been the main facet of the county’s economy, with the population exploding from 3,500 in 1960 to over 30,500 today.
Last year, mines in this county produced 283 million tons of coal, far more than any other county in the state. The recent closures of the nation’s fourth- and sixth- highest producing mines, both located just outside Gillette, have placed the city’s economy in jeopardy. Coal mining is the top industry in Campbell County, providing nearly a quarter of all jobs. With the mine owner filing for bankruptcy there is uncertainty about the mines opening again.
This sudden loss of jobs has an impact on the entire community, including ag industries, since all aspects of a county’s economy are interrelated. Michelle Pierce, Extension educator in Campbell County, says ag is one of the county’s foundation industries and there are many ramifications when the coal mines shut down.
“To begin with, people are in a panic because they don’t know what the future holds. I teach financial literacy; I am the community development educator in five counties and I realize we have ‘bust and boom’ in our area because of the energy industry. Coal is one of our main producers of energy here. It supports and affects housing, people’s ability to buy food and pay their bills. With a shutdown, people get desperate,” she said.
“With agriculture, and the farm-to-table awareness and all its moving parts, an economic crisis can sometimes spark new innovations and opportunities. However, here in our county we are very ag-friendly and business-friendly and people can often — through their own or someone else’s research — come up with something to fill a gap,” Pierce said.
“But in Wyoming when we have these busts and booms, the first thing is fear — people not knowing where they are going to live or where they will get their food. In terms of ag, we are producing the food. In our area we grow a lot of hay, feeding the beef and dairy segments. It’s an important cog in the wheel. Ag is directly affected if people can’t purchase ag products — if people move out,” she said. This affects every local industry.
“Many people have made good wages but haven’t planned ahead. They are doing fine one week and then the next week they are going to the food bank. This indicates that people haven’t used their resources wisely and don’t have any savings; so they become terrified,” she said.
When one industry is adversely affected, there are multiple affects. “Wyoming has a small population (500,000) and people are isolated. To live here, you have to be self-sufficient and survival-oriented. Agriculture itself is innovative, doing things like cover crops, and growing some crops year-round for the farm-to-table food, in spite of cold winters,” Pierce said.
Some of the people who have been laid off from the mines don’t want to move somewhere else so they start some other business — perhaps a restaurant or a greenhouse, or something they can do via the internet. “People in Wyoming want to live here, and a lot of them are connected to agriculture. They don’t want to leave. We have open space and privacy.” There are not many people in the state, but there’s still a need for basic industries and businesses to keep communities going.
“We are all tied to the land, for our very existence, and our way of life, but also very interconnected. When one pillar falls, the stool gets shaky. In our community we have experienced this multiple times, but people forget. It’s always good to have a back-up plan. Sometimes it takes some major modifications and changes, to survive. That’s what people do here.” she said.
EXTRA INCOME/HEALTH BENEFITS
“Everyone out at that coal mine is connected in some way to agriculture. It is all around us. In Campbell County we have a lot of ranchers, and most ranch families have someone working in town. Usually it’s for the health insurance benefits. Most of those jobs provide excellent wages and benefits. Ag people often work in other industries to be sustainable and have health insurance. When that family member loses that source of income they have to create another income stream,” she said.
“The definition of an ag producer is anyone who makes $1,000 or more annually from ag products, so there are a lot of folks who are technically in agriculture but depend on other sources of income to make ends meet. Most ag people have multiple streams of income, and if one industry goes down it affects those ranching families and everyone who is connected to the land,” she said.
“Sustainability in agriculture often takes multiple enterprises — whether an off-farm job, raising multiple crops and livestock, growing vegetables in a hoop house to sell or to supplement their own food source, providing hunting or fishing experiences, etc. There are many ways to bring in extra money and we have some really cool things going on here,” she said.
Randy Hayden, owner of Hayden Livestock, in Gillette, Wyo., said the mine shutdown will have a big financial effect on everyone. “When you have 1,200 to 1,500 people out of work and they are here with their families and can’t pay their bills, it will affect every industry. It may not affect agriculture as much, but it will affect the local stores and grocery markets if these people move away. It will also affect our tax base because the taxes those people were paying will have to be picked up by agriculture or somebody else,” he said.
“It will also impact all the contractors who work at the mine sites, and some of the reseeding programs are done by agricultural contractors. It will take time to figure out all affects it will have. They are trying to get these coal mines working again. Yesterday’s (July 9) newspaper said that the one that just went down has made arrangements through Chapter 11 to start back up again, if they find financing. Any time you have something the size of the coal industry drop out of the picture it will affect the livestock business because some of those same people work in the livestock fields. Some of them have livestock and sell livestock,” Hayden said.
“The people who make big money in the coal industry are the ones that buy big houses, boats, four-wheelers and other toys so those industries will be a little more affected, but it will also affect the people who just buy beef to put in the freezer. Hopefully our community will endure this. Agriculture has been the foundation of Gillette for a long time and has held it up. The coal, oil and methane industries come and go; agriculture is a bit more stable, but all those other industries support ours. Our livestock company has been here for 60 years and still hanging in there, but the coal mine has been a big part of our tax base. This helps pay for schools and other public institutions.”
Roger Coupal, a professor at the University of Wyoming and state Extension specialist in community development said there are not very many direct links between the coal mines and agriculture, but many indirect ones. The tax issue could become an impact, if the mines no longer pay taxes, affecting county government.
“The only direct link that might occur is that farmers and ranchers often need some off-farm employment; a spouse or family member might be working at one of the mine-related jobs. The shut-down might eliminate some of the off-farm jobs they depend on. Even if they work in a local retail establishment in Gillette, those businesses will be affected also, and may lay off some of their employees,” he said.
“Some off-farm employment may be with the county or city government, and if there is a drop in their revenue structure they may also be laying off people.” If county property taxes have to increase to fill some gaps, agriculture’s share may go up, though it may be longer-term impact. There may be reassessments or another mill levy added.
“Another small link between the mines and agriculture is that the mines might use hay bales to mitigate washouts that occur with rainstorms or might do subcontracting with ranchers and farmers who know how to run a tractor for reclamation work to prepare the ground and do some reseeding,” Coupal said.
“Mainly we think in terms of the rancher or farmer selling cattle or crops which usually go outside the county — export based, just like the mines — and can therefore work independently; they sell their products to buyers or consumers outside the county or state. These industries are somewhat insulated in that aspect.” Some farmers or ranchers may have a side enterprise, however, selling beef, chickens, eggs, vegetables locally to folks who now may not be able to buy them.
“There is a lot of uncertainty regarding all the potential impacts. A colleague and I are working with the governor’s office on state revenue diversification and it’s a tough question,” Coupal said.
David “Tex” Taylor, professor emeritus in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wyoming, said one of the first things that comes to mind is the fact that many ag operations are dependent on off-farm incomes to supplement the farm income. “With the coal mine shutdown there will be fewer options available in Campbell County, whether they work for the mine or work in town in one of the businesses that service the mine.” Everything is interrelated.
“I don’t know if there are any lease payments from coal companies to ranchers. There is a lot of split-estate property in Wyoming, with the state owning mineral rights, so there may be some private leases affected,” he said. There may be a number of situations that will affect certain individuals in agriculture.
“There may be some impact with reclamation projects — putting the lands back into grassland after a mining operation is finished. If put it back into grass, the land could be used for grazing. The reduced tax revenue if a mine stays shut down will reduce funding for things like schools. Some ag families have kids in school so they may be affected in that way,” Taylor said.
ON THE OTHER HAND
“On the positive side, at least from an agricultural standpoint, perhaps the mines shutting down will reduce some environmental impacts/spillover that have effects on water. It might also reduce things like traffic on country roads, trespass issues, gates left open, etc. making it easier to ranch without all these other things going on,” he said.
“The Powder River Basin Resource Council is a group of ranchers in that part of the state, with concerns about coal mining, oil and gas development, etc.,” Taylor said. Their website states that more than a million tons of coal leaves Wyoming’s Powder River Basin each day, bound for power plants across the nation. This is a big part of the state’s economy and the nation’s energy mix, but it also takes a toll on the state. This group works to protect air, land, and water resources during mining, pushing for effective bonding and reclamation standards and practices and advocating for a healthy and sustainable climate. People in ag are concerned about the environmental impacts of coal mining and coal-fired energy plants and many of them would prefer to see a transition from coal to clean energy, such as Wyoming’s growing wind and solar resources.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council was founded 46 years ago by ranchers and townspeople concerned about impacts of strip mining on landscapes, communities and freshwater aquifers, and responsible development of Wyoming’s energy resources. The council works with other organizations to wage effective campaigns to protect Wyoming’s air, land and water quality and to promote sustainable agricultural practices and policies in the state.
“The main direct effect on agriculture from the coal mine shutdowns, however, from an economic standpoint, is probably the issue of off-farm employment, which may diminish or suddenly come to an end for some farm folks,” Taylor said. “People have come to depend on that over the years, and when it goes away they have to figure out something else.” Most people in agriculture are innovative and survival-minded, however, and can usually come up with ways to change/adapt/innovate and keep going. ❖
— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at email@example.com.