We appreciate Alexis and her unifying voice and support of the work at Ficke Cattle Company. We hope everyone can check out her writing and photography that helps tell her story, experiences in her region and ultimately connect us all.
The Greatest Issue America is Facing
Farmer, rancher, photographer and writer wants to help bridge the divide
By Kerry Hoffschneider
Alexis Bonogofsky is not unlike others across rural America who want to see more unity, better political representation and reform of systems. She has spent most of her life working towards that unity and to help preserve the environment for generations to come. Bonogofsky’s passions only strengthened and became ever-more-real, when she was faced with an Exxon oil spill on her family’s land.
To begin to understand what motivates Bonogofsky, she said you must start in Montana, “That is where my ancestors are from. On my mom Debra’s side of the family, my great-grandparents homesteaded around Conrad, Montana – the ‘golden triangle.’ My dad Tom’s family homesteaded in North Dakota around the town of Carson and they were also farmers.”
“I grew up near Billings, Montana on the farm where I live right now that is on the Yellowstone river. When I was a kid, it wasn’t a production operation because my parents owned a tire store in town. The farm was more for our own subsistence,” she explained.
Bonogofsky attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington where she earned a degree in International Relations and went on to graduate school where she received a M.A. in International Development, “I had been thinking about traveling the world, working on agriculture and environmental issues and realized after I got my degree that I wanted to stay in the West.”
Her experiences eventually landed her a job with the National Wildlife Federation where she managed the Tribal Lands Conservation Program for about 11 years, working with tribes across the west on conservation issues, “I worked out of my house on my farm. A large part of it was working with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and with ranchers and farmers in eastern Montana on different issues, mostly a proposed coal mine and rail line for the coal.”
“The proposed coal mine, called the Otter Creek Coal Mine, needed a new railroad line to get coal out that was going to cross a bunch of cattle ranches,” she said. “The company was going to use eminent domain to take their land to do that. It was an egregious abuse of that power – a for-profit corporation being able to use the government power of condemnation to take people’s land from them.”
“The farmers and ranchers fought every step of the way and we won in the end. Most people directly impacted were against it. There were people around the area that thought it could be good for economic development. But, anyone directly impacted was really, really against it. The companies finally pulled out of the project in 2016,” she said.
That was just one of many fights Bonogofsky has faced in her life. The other one was with the oil industry that began in July of 2011, “I had been back for four years on the farm and there is a pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone, up-river from us near Laurel. During unprecedented flooding, the river bottom scoured and exposed an Exxon oil pipeline that was only about four to six feet under the river. Something big and heavy that was being tossed down the river hit the exposed pipe. They called it a ‘guillotine cut’ because it just split open. Exxon has a control room in Houston and they got notice of the break, but they only shut down the pipeline for a little bit and then restarted it leading to a couple hours of oil spilling into the river during the flood. The oil came over the banks, into our fields and grazing areas.”
“I woke up on July 2 and walked down to check on goats and let them out to graze and I smelled the oil and walked into one of our fields. I was wearing waders and there were clumps of heavy oil, floating and sticking to trees and bushes,” she went on. “Oil was spotted clear down river even where the Yellowstone runs into the Missouri River in North Dakota. The spill impacted quite a few landowners and farmers. It went into some irrigation ditches. They spent $125 million on clean up and only recovered two or three barrels of oil.”
Bonogofsky said her personal experience with this sort of environmental disaster, only heightened her awareness and made her more empathetic to the struggles of others, “You realize the power is skewed to government and industry vs. people who are just trying to protect their places. It was so much about public relations when it came to Exxon and not really about taking care of the problem and doing the best thing for the river and the landowners.”
As a result of her experiences, Bonogofsky started writing and photography work, “I started East of Billings in 2013 to try and bring attention and awareness to the issues in eastern Montana. I was frustrated with people’s preconceived ideas about that part of the state. I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t get anyone to write about it and take pictures of it, I am going to have to do it.’ That is where it started. I never expected people to pay me to write or take pictures, it really came out of a place of bringing awareness.”
While she writes, she also keeps the farm and ranch going, “We have a very small place compared to a lot of ranches out here that are 20,000 to 40,000 acres. When I moved back, I had many different aspirations for it. I wanted to raise high-quality meat for local markets and wanted to take care of the land in the best way possible. So, we got goats to control the weeds and for meat and eventually added Katahdin Sheep, also called ‘hair sheep,’ which are bred for the quality of their meat. We do not have to shear; they just drop their wool.”
“We also have chickens for eggs and started to diversify as much as possible on our place to be able to support us and to sell meat into the Billings area. We do local marketing and sell to a couple of restaurants too,” she added.
You may also find Bonogofsky teaching classes about how to butcher animals or helping her community come together in other numerous ways, “We expect community building to come from organizations instead of us as individuals. Being a part of an organization is great, but being an active member of your community is even better.”
“I’m also concerned that a lot of the big environmental conservation groups have people working for them who are urban and do not understand rural communities. It leads to a feeling that people are trying to change our way of life or control what we do. I understand that viewpoint. I get the divide. I think it is important for those organizations to hire more people in the rural communities they work in. There are a lot of people in rural communities who have a land ethic and a conservation ethic. The way we get past the divide is building actual relationships with people and learning that it is not an us vs. them thing. From my own experience, if we could just sit down and talk to each other and listen more we would find more commonalities than we think there are. That doesn’t mean we will agree on everything either,” she said.
“But, if we all believe in our democracy, which I think most of us do, we have to move into conversations with each other with an open mind. We all must do that. If we enter into conversations with a closed mind, our democracy has failed,” she added.
Bonogofsky is spending serious time and effort, thinking about and writing about how the divide between rural communities and urban communities can be bridged, “It’s almost like trying to be a translator, because I feel like we are talking past each other. In my background, I have been a part of both these worlds. I think how and where we get our food and this divide are two of the greatest issues America is facing right now. I see politicians stoking those divisions for their own personal benefit.”
“It seems like we are trying to create a society where people cannot take care of themselves anymore,” she said. “I want people to feel like they have a useful, good life. Is it sitting at the desk every day or growing our own food? I want more people working on farms and ranches – instead, we are going in the opposite direction.”
Learn more about Alexis and her work at: www.eastofbillings.com and www.facebook.com/easternMontana
All photos included with this story were taken by Alexis. Do not reproduce without her permission.