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Opportunity for value-added agriculture abounds

RONAN – Montana is part of America’s great bread basket, but nearly 80 percent of the state’s grains are shipped overseas to be processed. Lake County Community Development has spent the last year organizing a conference for Montana Farmer’s Union that explains how farmers can engage in value-added agriculture that boosts the Montana economy at home. 

The Harvest Montana “Growing a Regional Grain Economy” conference scheduled for Nov. 20 in Great Falls will feature presentations from people like Alicia Moe, who is part owner and sales marketer for Cream of the West, Montana’s oldest food manufacturing company. Since 1914 the company has transformed raw Montana grains into tasty cereals and other products. 

“I am passionate about promoting Montana-made products,” Moe said. “For example, Montana hard red spring wheat contains the highest protein content in the world. That’s a fact we should promote.  Harvest Montana provides an avenue for producers, millers, manufacturers, distributors and consumers to share information about growing, processing, distributing and selling Montana grain.  By collaborating, these various sectors will create a more robust and diverse grain economy which, in turn, will benefit Montana’s citizens and communities.” 

For those who are young and perhaps a bit apprehensive about diving into something new or exotic, farmer Jacob Cowgill will be on hand to offer insight into both topics. 

Cowgill and his wife started Prairie Heritage Farm in north-central Montana six years ago. Their operation includes vegetables, livestock and ancient heritage grains from the Fertile Crescent and Sonora, Mexico. 

“Each year we trial different varieties of ancient and heritage wheat and barley to see what grows well here and which have unique flavors and culinary characteristics,” Cowgill said. “What we are trying to promote is the idea of ‘taste of place.’ Much like wine grapes, a grain crop grown in a particular place and at a certain time will impart certain characteristics unique to that place and time.”

Cowgill said he believes the conference will be beneficial to those trying something new and different or who have different ideas of what they would like to pursue. 

“I believe there are sessions at the Harvest Montana Grain Conference that will interest just about anybody,” Cowgill said. “Whether one attends either of the sessions I’m presenting in will depend on that person’s interests. If they’re a beginning farmer, they’ll be able to pick up useful information from the beginning farmer session. Or, if they’re thinking of adding value to a crop they grow, then they could attend the value-added session. There are sessions on crop production, specialty grains, livestock feed, gluten-free grains, malting, and much more.”

Cowgill said he believes the value-added market could be beneficial to rural communities. 

 “Perhaps most importantly, having numerous value-added businesses in the state would provide more opportunities for farmers, both existing farmers and new farmers,” Cowgill said. “In many parts of the state, we have a declining rural population and an aging farm population. Farms are getting bigger (fewer people on the land), families are moving away, and our rural schools are closing and consolidating. A healthy rural agrarian population is important for Montana and value-added agriculture will be a critical component to providing opportunities for farmers of all types.”

The conference includes sessions on crop production, specialty grains, livestock feed, gluten-free grains, malting, and several other topics. Lake County Community Development organizers Laura Ginsburg and Shay Farmer have also arranged for several tours of nearby facilities that are a part of the state’s value-added market. The event’s keynote speaker will be Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center?. Meter is a nationally recognized food systems analyst. He has conducted a series of studies on Montana’s regional food economy. 

A brewfest with out of state judges and a performance from a Johnny Cash cover band will also coincide with the event. 

“It’s going to be great,” Ginsburg said. “I think there’s a lot of development that could happen. I know western Montana is not the central grain growing area, but we do grow a lot of grains over here. Montana exports a lot of that grain and those exports are being affected by oil transport so it’s taking a long time for stuff to be shipped, I think it is an area where farmers could look at it and say that we don’t want to keep waiting for grain to be shipped. We can start doing something with it locally.” 

Registration is open at: 



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