Back in mid-January, Governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency due to a pipeline rupture spilling as much as 50,000 gallons of crude oil into eastern Montana’s swift natural beauty, the Yellowstone River. Among the folks impacted by this spill is Dena Hoff, a dedicated family farmer activist and Montana farmer herself since 1979.
Since she could walk behind Grandma Mamie in her garden, Dena has been transfixed with the world of agriculture. As a young girl, she would spend time on friends’ farms and ranches, picking frozen silage out of the open pit to feed the cows, fixing fences, shocking oats for the thresher, all typical duties she’s since become acquainted with on her own farm. “Everything about hard work and feeding yourself appealed to me even then,” Dena recalls, “I always wanted to farm.”
Today, Dena farms the 500-acre stretch of the scenic Sand Creek Farm, named for the creek that trickles through all year long. She raises a variety of crops, including wheat, fruit trees, edible dry beans, corn, alfalfa, hay, and vegetables, plus sheep, cows, poultry and pigs.
Dena also focuses much of her attention on family farmer rights and activism. As a farmer herself, she knows there is work to be done for family farmers: “I had a first hand look at how hard economics born of bad farm policy made their very survival difficult. I always wanted them to have a better life and the respect of their communities and the country in general. The more I grew, the more I saw how complicated the issues were – I wanted to help.”
“…I saw all the lights and vehicles and immediately knew where the spill was—right across the fence from my sheep pasture. We could smell it.”
On Saturday, January 17th, a rupture in the 12-inch Poplar Pipeline began spilling tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, adjacent to Dena’s beloved Sand Creek Farm. Weeks later, there still hasn’t been an explanation–no message on her answering machine from the owner of the pipeline, Bridger Pipeline, no emails, no plans. The spill hit the northern end of her property, but being on the high side of the river, she doesn’t foresee too much impact on Sand Creek directly. “We really worry about all the downstream impacts to fisheries, including the endangered pallid sturgeon, municipal water users, irrigators, recreationists, wildlife, air, water, and soil quality,” she says. The scary part is, Dena won’t know exactly how she’ll be affected until the ice in the creek melts this spring. However, her downstream farmer and rancher friends are already seeing oil in open stretches of the Yellowstone River.
Since the incident, Dena has begun collecting information on past inspections of the pipeline, which was constructed in the 1950s. “I want all information about all aspects of this and other pipelines to be public knowledge… If this much damage can happen with a 12-inch pipeline, what will inevitably happen with a 36-inch pipeline?” Dena is of course referring to the heavily debated Keystone XL Pipeline, slated to go under the Yellowstone upriver from Dena’s farm and the irrigation district’s water supply.
Dena encourages folks everywhere to become active in the fight for clean energy, and to take this spill as a warning of what’s to come: “There is a lot going on everywhere at all levels, from the local to the global. It’s all linked, even though many prefer to think if it isn’t in their backyard, it doesn’t exist. We are all linked as inhabitants of our Mother Earth. The oceans connect to make us one world, and we all need to work together so there will be a future for all living things.”
Dena Hoff is a farmer and activist in eastern Montana, where she has raised sheep, cattle, alfalfa, and corn with her husband since 1979. Hoff is the North America coordinator for La Via Campesina-the “international movement of peasants” as well as vice president of the National Family Farm Coalition and former chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council.