By Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Governor-elect Greg Gianforte said Wednesday he has picked a former state lawmaker who now directs the federal Farm Service Agency in Montana to serve as the next director of the state Department of Agriculture.

Mike Foster, a Townsend native, is the first agency head to be named by the incoming Republican governor of Montana.

Agriculture has historically been Montana’s biggest industry, with about 27,000 farms and ranches on almost 60 million acres. Combined, those operations produced livestock and crops valued at about $3 billion in 2017, the most recent year available, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Foster is a former high school teacher and lobbyist who served eight years in the Montana Legislature in the 1990s, including as majority whip in the Senate, and as chief policy adviser to former Gov. Judy Martz.

In 2018, Foster was appointed by the administration of President Donald Trump as state executive director of the Montana USDA Farm Service Agency. The agency assists Montana farmers and ranchers with farm loans, disaster relief and conservation work.

Gianforte said Foster understands the challenges facing agriculture producers and had shown himself committed to meeting their needs.

“Montana farmers and ranchers work hard to feed the world and I’m excited to be a strong voice for these Montanans,” Foster said.

The Agriculture Department has an annual budget of $19 million and 117 full-time employees, spokeswoman Chelsi Bay said. The agency’s main office is in Helena and eight field offices are spread across the state. There is an analytical laboratory in Great Falls and grain labs in Great Falls and Plentywood.

The agriculture

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