Cattle Grazing near Homes

Cattle graze in a lot adjacent to a west-end neighborhood Wednesday in Bozeman.

Several hundred people gathered in Bozeman on Wednesday for an economic overview conference, hearing from experts about the past and future of industries including agriculture, healthcare, tourism and everything in-between.

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research, based at the University of Montana, held its annual Bozeman stop for the Economic Outlook Seminar at The Commons on Baxter Lane. Speakers from BBER and Montana companies provided insight into the past several years of Montana’s economy and a look into the 2020 forecast.

“There’s been no slowdown here in the Gallatin County economy,” said Patrick Barkey, the director of BBER.

The theme of this year’s BBER road show is “Finding Good Workers,” and several of the speeches focused on a state and national trend: In many areas, Bozeman included, there are more jobs than there are workers.

Barkey said that’s for a variety of reasons. One big one is that baby boomers, the unusually large generation born roughly between 1945 and 1965, are now reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce.

“Every workforce in Montana ... is going to have a higher fraction of older workers,” Barkey said.

Barkey also said that the past few years have been tough on Montana farmers and ranchers, who are “seeing a hemorrhaging of revenue” in part due to escalating trade wars with countries that want to import Montana products.

George W. Haynes, a professor and extension specialist at MSU Extension, said Montana grain prices are down in all markets — winter wheat, spring wheat and barley. Pulse crops like beans, peas and lentils also saw a drop in acreage in the state, and those markets are relatively volatile in terms of pricing. Hemp takes up about 40,000 acres of Montana, but those producers can have a hard time finding buyers, leaving a lot of harvested crops sitting in storage.

Haynes said beef exports to South Korea are growing and expected to continue, while exports to Japan and Canada are down.

Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research director Norma Nickerson said that out-of-state tourist spending on short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, went up 11% betwen 2017 and 2018. Since 2013, that number has gone up by 129%. That doesn’t come without its share of issues, like taking houses that were formerly long-term rentals off the market.

Despite tourist dollars going up for short-term rentals, Nickerson said overall tourist spending actually fell 2% between 2017 and 2018, with tourists staying for shorter amounts of time than the year before.

Robert Sonora, an associate director at BBER and the director of the organization’s health care research, said the U.S. is facing higher heath care costs and higher infant mortality rates than most other developed countries in the world.

“If we look at actual health outcomes, we’re not getting a lot of bang for our buck,” Sonora said.

Healthcare costs have risen by 275% in Western states since 2000, while income has risen only 13% during the same time. Montana’s average health care cost is higher than the national average, and has been so since 1997.

“This is a workforce issue,” he said.

This story has been updated to clarify that escalating trade tariffs are applied to some goods other countries import from Montana. 

Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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