October 24, 1988 12:00 PM

In the fall of 1985, Dick and Judith Kurth’s once prosperous Fort Benton, Mont., cattle ranch was sliding into ruin. A drought and a lean beef market had left them $1.2 million in debt to Norwest Bank; now the bank had cut off their credit. In a meeting with loan officer Floyd DeRusha, the Kurths asked if there was anything they could do to raise cash. “Well,” they say DeRusha told them jokingly, “other than growing marijuana, I don’t know what you can do. Why don’t you try that?” Recalls Dick, 58: “We all laughed. I was 55 at the time, had never seen a joint smoked and still haven’t.”

Over the next few months, Kurth was to see many things he had never seen before and most of which he would prefer to forget. The turning point came a few days after the meeting with DeRusha, when Kurth picked up a magazine and happened on an article titled “Marijuana—Savior of the Family Farm.” Pot, the article noted, had become one of the country’s leading cash crops. Says Kurth: “I came up with the rationalization that people who own distilleries, whose product leads to drunk-driving deaths, sleep at night. So do the people who sell cigarettes, which kill thousands of people from lung cancer. We had to believe that what we were going to do wasn’t any worse than what they did.”

Once the agonizing decision was made, Kurth was determined to bring the same dedication to growing cannabis that he had to raising his cattle. “We decided that if we were going to grow it, we would grow the very best we could,” he says. In late 1985, Kurth began visiting bars in Great Falls, Mont., about 35 miles from Fort Benton. After a few drinks with a group of young men, Dick was put in touch with the right people. Ten days later, a man phoned and arranged to meet him in a Great Falls parking lot. On the understanding that Kurth would sell him the product, the stranger gave the rancher a handful of seeds and some books on marijuana cultivation. By the spring of 1986, the Kurths were growing enough marijuana to begin selling small amounts. The work, they realized, would be more than they could handle alone, so they decided to bring in their children, daughter Cindy Halley, 30, and sons Doug, 38, and Bill, 36. Says Doug’s wife, Rhonda, 37: “It was either do it or say goodbye to everything.”

The Kurths soon completed a 3,600-square-foot addition to one of their farm buildings. Inside, they installed rotating halide and sodium lamps, plus irrigation and ventilation systems designed to maintain ideal growing conditions for up to 2,500 plants. Troubled that their product might find its way into the hands of teenagers, the Kurths chose to market only the marijuana buds, the most potent—and expensive—part of the plant. “That way,” says Dick, “the kids couldn’t afford it.” The family eventually learned to process the leaves and stems for conversion into hash oil, another potent and high-priced form of cannabis.

Every few weeks, Dick drove his Ford pickup or his ’79 Lincoln Continental to a designated mile marker on the highway between Great Falls and Helena. There he left a box containing five to seven pounds of marijuana, for which he says he received $1,800 a pound in cash. “The ranch never did better,” Kurth has said, but prosperity came at a price. “We had two different personalities,” says Judith. “One for growing and the other for the community. It put a lot of pressure on us. I started getting sick headaches for the first time in my life.” Adds Dick: “On the days I would deliver the stuff, I was absolutely wore out, exhausted from looking over my shoulder. No, we didn’t like it.” Kurth claims that he told Norwest Bank officials where he was getting the money to pay off his debts and says they even helped him deposit his hefty profits without alerting the bank’s detection system. Norwest President Frank Shaw denies both accusations.

By last fall, with their debts reduced to a manageable level, the Kurths decided to inform the dealers they were selling to that the operation would be winding down. The dealers were not pleased. Recalls Dick: “They said, ‘We’re gonna tell you when to quit, and if you don’t like it, well, you’ve sure got a nice family and nice grandkids, and we’d hate to see anything happen to them.’ ” To make matters worse, the dealer who had started the Kurths in business returned suddenly from a stay in California to find the pot ranch flourishing. He demanded a piece of the action, and when the Kurths refused, says Doug, “he said he would get back at us for cutting him out.”

Last Oct. 16, while Dick and Judith were away on a business trip to Spokane, Wash., five men claiming to be from the Drug Enforcement Administration showed up at the Kurth’s ranch, roughed up Doug, Rhonda and Bill, tied them to chairs and took 400 marijuana plants. The next day, after Dick and Judith’s return, a man who said he had been at the ranch the night before called and demanded $25,000 by that afternoon “or else he’d call the real DEA and have us busted,” says Doug.

Terrified, the Kurths began uprooting and burning their crop. The family were still destroying the marijuana when a cloud of dust appeared over the dirt road leading up to the ranch, heralding the arrival of legitimate lawmen, a posse from the DEA and the local sheriff’s office. The extortionists had done as they had threatened and called in the law. At the sight of the squad cars, several members of the Kurth family burst into tears. “I think everyone was crying just because it was finally over and we were so relieved,” says Dick.

Fort Benton, a conservative farming community, was stunned by the arrests, and struggled to understand how a man like Dick Kurth, chosen rancher of the year in 1972 by the state of Montana, could have strayed so far from the straight and narrow. Explains Kurth: “My grandchildren are fifth generation on that ranch. We were trying to save the place for them, and that’s all we were doing. I didn’t feel like we were doing the right thing, no. But when it meant stopping the destruction of our life’s work, I felt I had to do it.”

Many of Kurth’s neighbors remain unconvinced. “Most farmers around here are having hard times,” says Don Cooke, 30, “but you don’t see us growing pot.” County attorney Tom Sheehy faces a recall drive for allowing the Kurths to plea bargain last July—Dick and Judith pled guilty to criminal possession and intent to sell a controlled substance and were given reduced sentences. Chouteau County judge Chan Ettien sent Dick and Judith to prison—him for five years, her for one—and handed down suspended sentences to the younger Kurths. Many of Fort Benton’s 1,500 residents were outraged when Judge Ettien compared the Kurths to Depression-era farmers who made moonshine to save their family homesteads, and described marijuana as “not inherently the social evil that cocaine, crack and alcohol are.”

Although Judith will be released this week from the Women’s Correctional Center in Warm Springs, Mont., and Dick could be freed in four months, the family’s troubles are far from over. Their bank debts now total $2.6 million, and they owe the state government $750,000 in penalties. The family has filed for bankruptcy, but, Judith insists tearfully, “I still don’t think it’s the end. I still hope we’ll be able to save the ranch.”

Her husband is less optimistic. “We were always on the side of the law,” says Dick Kurth. “We still are. I did one bad thing in my life, and I’m being crucified for it. I’m not gonna have a thing when I’m done with all this.”

—Montgomery Brower, and Dirk Mathison in Fort Benton

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