West Valley farmer touts strong work ethic

The Race For Commissioner

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Gary Krueger is running for the District  3 county commissioner post.

In Gary Krueger’s life the old adage, “like father, like son,” seems to hold true, especially when it comes to work ethic.

Krueger’s father, Ken, farmed in the West Valley area, delivered milk for Skyline Dairy and later became a Flathead County commissioner.

“Work was his life,” Krueger said, recalling his late father’s tenacity. “It was a good way to live. I like to work. Most everything in my life revolves around work.”

Krueger’s own life has been a blend of farming and running businesses and now he, too, is seeking to be the District 3 county commissioner. Krueger, a Republican, is running against Democrat Clara Mears-LaChappelle to succeed retiring Commissioner Dale Lauman.

As a boy, Krueger was driving grain trucks by the time he was 8 and started his first business — a custom hay-bale hauling service for farmers — when he was still in high school.

“I got my own loan, made my own payments,” he said.

When Krueger headed off to Montana State University after high school, he dabbled in soil science classes but didn’t settle on a major. He eventually made the decision to return to the West Valley and take up farming.

He rented close to 1,000 acres and began growing mostly barley in the early 1980s. He didn’t know then what a struggle it would be to keep his head above water as cattle and grain prices tanked and interest rates skyrocketed through the coming decade.

Then his wife, Julie, got cancer and died in 1990, leaving behind three young sons.

It was a dark time in Krueger’s life.

“I didn’t deal with the loss of a spouse as well as I should have,” he reflected.

His mother, grandmother and aunts helped out with the boys, but couldn’t quell the loneliness Krueger felt. It was a soul-searching time.

“I struggled with what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was mad at agriculture.”

With debts mounting from his wife’s illness, Krueger was forced into bankruptcy. Julie had been diagnosed with a cancerous growth on her thyroid gland prior to their marriage in 1981, and while she recovered, she was unable to get health insurance.

In retrospect, Krueger said going through those financially devastating years is what gives him compassion for other struggling county residents and the drive to improve the economic vitality of the Flathead.

“In my case [the bankruptcy] makes me better at running the county and understanding issues,” he said. “I know what having zero [money] can be. I lived in a mobile home with holes. You pull yourself up.”

Krueger married Jessica in 1992 and set about rebuilding his life. They had a daughter and he went to work in construction, installing curbs and sidewalks throughout the Flathead Valley.

“In that business you have to know how to save to make it through the winter,” he noted.

One fall, when he knew he didn’t have enough of a financial cushion to make it until the next construction season, Krueger went to work for A-1 Paving, driving a mix truck and later working at the batch plant.

After a stint at A-1 Paving, he and Randy Wise started Flathead Valley Concrete.

“We ran for 10 really good years,” he said. “Randy was a good partner and is a good friend. I really enjoyed that time.”

Krueger kept the remnants of the concrete business after the two partners went their own ways.

About seven years ago, the “gravel wars” began.

Krueger knew his land was laden with sand and gravel and began taking out sand when it “became somewhat of a commodity.”

It took two frustrating years to get the permit he needed to mine the sand.

After receiving approval to expand his gravel-pit operation up to 80 acres in February 2009, he asked the county to amend its definition of “gravel extraction” to include asphalt and concrete plants. There was vocal opposition from many of his West Valley neighbors.

The county Planning Board turned down his request in November 2009, but the commissioners approved the amended definition in April 2010. His request for a conditional-use permit to operate an asphalt and concrete plant received Board of Adjustment approval in July 2010.

Krueger was on the Board of Adjustment at the time but recused himself from the vote.

“When the gravel wars were going on, it was the first time I really figured out what I would’ve” studied in college, he said. “I would have become a land-use attorney.”

As he worked through the process of getting a permit for his gravel pit, he did a lot of research on zoning laws, and it was an eye-opener for Krueger.

“I see zoning rules as a conflict with what America is,” he said, explaining that zoning seems to fly in the face of the freedoms America’s forefathers sought.

“Sometimes [the county] uses zoning wrong,” he said. “I’m not anti-zoning. I’m perfectly comfortable with West Valley zoning. We’ve got a great process.”

These days, with the local construction industry still depressed, Krueger said he isn’t doing much gravel work. His business, Plateau Aggregate, is registered but not active.

Krueger has instead turned his attention to farming alongside his wife, planting about 700 acres of wheat, canola and alfalfa each year.

It’s the perfect time to run for county commissioner, he said.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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