In Montana’s dying farm country, ‘vanguard agriculture’ puts people back on the land
Montana, most residents agree, is the Last Best Place — but it will only remain the Best Place if it stays undiscovered.
In the heart of every Montanan lies the conviction that the fewer people in the state, the better. Fewer inhabitants mean less competition for that 20-acre home site just 15 minutes from town, and fewer people slipping into your favorite trout pool on the Big Hole or setting up a wall tent in your secret elk-hunting spot.
But there’s a dark side to what Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, has dubbed the "Montana Mystique": a stubborn isolationism that undermines communities and prevents people from seeking solutions to deep-seated economic problems.
In the rolling wheat country of central and eastern Montana, this individualism pits farmer against farmer. The winners unfurl endless fields of wheat across many thousands of acres. The losers, in ever-growing numbers, simply go belly-up. Often they end up moving away altogether, adding to the steady un-peopling of rural Montana.
In many ways, this cutthroat commodity agriculture is logical, the offspring of an economic model designed to feed the most people at the least cost. A growing number of critics, however, believe that this economic model is destroying not only rural Montana, but many of the West’s "flat" counties — those places that lack the scenery, resorts and urban amenities that draw new residents and businesses.
Farmer Dean Folkvord of Three Forks, Mont., puts it plainly: "There are winners and losers in economics. The winners are the cities." The losers are the small towns and the agricultural areas.
University of Montana economist Larry Swanson says the state’s small cities are "actually relatively high performers" in terms of economic well-being. The state’s urban and scenic areas are mostly in its mountainous western part, and they continue to draw the overwhelming percentage of new immigrants.
But in eastern Montana’s farming counties, populations are wavering at the critical threshold necessary to fund county government. Wibaux County, hard against the North Dakota line, had over 3,000 people in 1920; now it’s down to 971. Treasure County had nearly 2,000 people 85 years ago; today, it has 745. Even some western counties, such as Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Silver Bow and Park, either stayed the same or lost people between 2000 and 2004.
In fact, if not for growth in three counties — Flathead, Ravalli and Gallatin — Montana would have had an overall population loss from 2000 to 2004.
In 2003, eight of the 10 poorest counties in the nation (based on wages and salaries) were in Montana, all of them agricultural. On Nov. 29, the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest statistics. Montana was 45th in the nation in terms of median household income, rolling around at the bottom of the barrel with West Virginia and Louisiana.
One wonders what happened. What about the goddamned New Economy? Wasn’t that supposed to save beautiful rural places like these?
In some places, it has. But other isolated areas, especially those that depend on commodity agriculture, continue to suffer.
Nonetheless, a growing number of people refuse to accept the demise of rural Montana. They are not the well-meaning rustic immigrants with trust funds. Nor are they members of Montana’s traditional triumvirate of logging, commodity agriculture, and mining — the people who angrily dismiss the New Economy, declaring the state will never regain her sheen until she returns to the old ways. These optimists are the founders and practitioners of what might be called vanguard agriculture, dryland farmers who are finding new ways to grow and market their produce.
Some of them are organic farmers, who are reaching beyond roadside farmers’ markets to compete on a national — even international — level. "Organic agriculture brings a shimmer of hope to our industry in Montana," says Nancy Peterson, the state’s director of agriculture. "It brings the change that’s necessary."
Other farmers who are not organic, but use holistic and integrated methods, are determined to show that the small guy can thrive in a commodity system dominated by Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. They’re heading into new territory for grain growers, following the companies that specialize in organic or "natural" fruits, vegetables and even meat, and now rack up billions in sales annually.
These farmers have another goal that conventional commodity agriculture has all but abandoned: maintaining healthy rural communities. Organic or alternative producers have built grain mills, bakeries and packing operations; they’re building co-ops and making plans for a biodiesel plant (see story page 19). Perhaps most importantly, vanguard agriculture is bucking, acre-by-acre, the dark side of the Last Best Place mythos — and including people in its solutions.
They have "a long, long ways to go," as one organic farmer acknowledges. They know that, like commodity growers, they’re at the mercy of the public’s whimsical taste. And the mercurial nature of supply and demand could bury them; almost anything that can be produced can be overproduced.
But it’s difficult to find another movement with the potential to turn around rural Montana’s long population decline, and provide an alternative to both corporate commodity agriculture and the controversial proposal to turn the Plains into one vast "Buffalo Commons" (HCN, 1/15/01: Plains Sense). And in the successes and failures of Montana’s vanguard agriculture lie lessons for the rest of the flat West, which is struggling to prove that the region has a future outside the cities and below the mountains.
Sexing up the beansIn Conrad in north-central Montana, population 2,638, the November winds drive the snow sideways. The flakes pelt aging clusters of grain elevators; the sky is the same leaden color as the buildings.
In the office of one elevator, David Oien shoves aside papers on a cluttered desk, making room to illustrate a point. "There are two ways to grow in agriculture: horizontally," he says, moving his hands sideways. "Or vertically" — and he raises them about two feet off the desk.
Oien, 56 years old with a shock of gray hair, has just come back from a farm conference where a speaker from a farm credit association championed the horizontal approach. "This guy said that if you wanted to borrow money from him, that if you wanted to be a viable operation, you’d have to expand your operation by 15 percent a year."
This mentality has prevailed for at least a century. Whenever prices are low and interest rates high — such as during the 1980s — the farmers with the least amount of debt, hoping to get ahead, buy up their neighbors’ land. Flat wheat prices and intense foreign competition mean grain producers must rely on quantity to make money. Federal subsidy payments are based on farm acreage, so volume is the name of the game. With fewer children interested in farming, the neighbors are often happy to sell.
As a result, in 1920, Montana had about 58,000 farms, averaging 608 acres apiece. In 2004, Montana’s 27,000 farms averaged 2,146 acres apiece.
Oien has spent years trying to buck the expansion trend. He and a handful of other organic growers, many of them third- and fourth-generation Montana farmers, have chosen the vertical approach, seeking quality on the acreage they have, not racing after more — and greener — pastures on the other side of the fence.
Oien, who was born and raised in Conrad, is one of the pioneers of organic agriculture. Other farmers talk about his persistence, creativity, irreverence and bone-deep determination to make the world a better place — traits Oien says were nurtured during his years as a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s.
Oien began farming with his father in 1976. It was a small operation, only 240 acres, and his father used the most efficient tools at his disposal, including herbicides and pesticides — coming home so soaked in chemicals that his wife would make him take off all his clothes lest he kill the houseplants.
Oien’s father wasn’t much of a risk-taker; the threat of ruthless consolidation tends to discourage that trait in conventional farmers. Oien doesn’t blame him: "He was a child of his generation as I am a child of mine," he says. His father didn’t object to Oien’s early experiments with organics, however — just made a few friendly jabs: "He’d tell me the only place I could sell it was to my mother," Oien recalls.
In 1987, Oien got together with four other farmers and started Timeless Seeds. "We grew black medic (a hardy legume used to fix nitrogen into the soil) not for food, but for seed." This first venture was not particularly successful, but it piqued his interest in nitrogen-fixing plants as a form of fertilizer. When the market for organic foods started to grow in the mid-1990s, Oien and his partners planted wheat, barley and flax.
They put their crops through a variety of trial rotations. First, they planted "green manure," various nitrogen-fixing legumes that are not harvested but plowed back into the soil. The legumes would be followed by wheat or barley, then by a pulse, such as lentils or chickpeas, then perhaps by flaxseed or oilseed crops such as sunflowers. Rotation not only restored the soil; it curbed the growth of weeds and insects.
Then, says Oien, "We went around to food shows, selling grains in 50-pound sacks."
They faced long odds: Most organic farmers don’t get the federal subsidies that conventional farmers do, but they face the same high transportation costs when it’s time to get their products to market.
And grains and pulses lack a certain Madison Avenue cachet. Most grains go into animal feed, and therefore get less attention from consumers. When one farmer says, "I grow organic avocados in seaside Santa Barbara," and the other one says, "I grow organic wheat in Scobey, Mont.," guess who takes home the trophy for sexiest product?
Nonetheless, through experiments ("we figured things out in a disorganized way"), failures, diligence, and what Oien describes as just plain luck, Timeless Seeds grew. The company won — although it later lost — a contract to supply French lentils to Trader Joe’s grocery stores. This fall, Oien (who is still president of the company) and his partners shipped 66,000 packages of organic lentils and peas to 160 Whole Foods grocery stores throughout the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.
While Oien is the only full-time employee, Timeless spreads the work around. It partners with a Great Falls-based health-care provider, hiring developmentally disabled adults to pack seeds and grains.
Today, Conrad has three mills that cater to organically raised crops.
And the sex appeal? Timeless Seeds’ products, particularly its black beluga lentils, have won praise from cooks worldwide. The shiny black lentils resemble caviar when cooked. A food critic for The Artful Diner, an online food and wine publication, reviewed a restaurant in Pennsylvania recently, waxing eloquent about "the beautifully pan-seared black cod set on a seabed of braised black beluga lentils and finished with a first-rate chive-vermouth beurre blanc."
Not bad for a plate of beans.
Building the Montana brand This type of niche marketing has obvious risks. But for those willing to make the leap, vanguard agriculture brings modest prosperity — even to the state’s most down-and-out areas.
Take Chouteau County, whose 5,575 inhabitants amount to an anatomically unlikely 1.5 people per square mile. The county leads the state in wheat production, and it’s no coincidence that it is also home to an almost feudal disparity of wealth. In 2003, the roughly 1,500 grain producers in Chouteau received a total of $34 million in direct farm assistance from the federal government; the top 10 producers reaped $210,000 apiece.
At the same time, Chouteau County ranks in the 87th percentile of counties nationwide in average adjusted gross income. About one-third of families with children under 5 years old live below the poverty line. Since 2000, the county has lost 6.6 percent of its population. Elementary school enrollment has fallen 22 percent. In 2002, the county issued just two building permits.
But Chouteau is also home to Bob Quinn, one of the founders of Montana’s vanguard agriculture movement. Quinn isn’t your average farmer: He has a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry. And unlike most conventional farmers, Quinn does not put everything in one basket. His 2,800-acre farm in Big Sandy resembles an agricultural research station. He grows as many as 12 crops at once: varieties of lentils, peas, corn, safflower, wheat, barley, alfalfa, black medic and flax. He’s about to plant an apple orchard. Like Oien, he rotates his fields between crops of wheat, barley, oilseed, alfalfa and pulses interspersed with "green manure."
Quinn’s argument in favor of organic farming starts with a bit of simple math: Strong demand and limited supply mean that a Montana organic farmer gets twice the money for his or her product as a conventional farmer, he says. At the same time, expenses are lower.
Quinn’s conversion to organic did not happen overnight. For years, he and his father ran their farm using conventional fertilizers and chemicals. He first dabbled in specialty grains in 1978, when he established a wheat buying/brokering company and began to supply high-protein wheat to California whole-grain bakeries. When demand outstripped supply, Quinn bought wheat from his neighbors.
In 1983, Quinn started Montana Flour and Grains, a mill in Fort Benton. When customers began requesting organic stone-ground flour, Quinn obliged: "By 1985, half of what we were milling was organic." In 1993, he added a cleaning mill, which removes chaff and detritus from the grain. Then he sold the plant to a partner; other projects occupied his mind.
Experiments with organic crops on his own farm produced startling numbers. Through crop rotation and the use of alfalfa to deliver nitrogen to the soil, Quinn obtained a crop yield and protein content that were nearly identical to those of conventional methods. By 1993, he was exclusively organic.
During this period, he came across a nearly forgotten strain of Egyptian wheat called Khorasan, which is extraordinarily high in protein, yet sensitive to a fungus common in many wetter wheat-growing areas. Quinn discovered that Khorasan wheat thrived in the high, dry plains of Montana and across the border in Canada, where the climate discourages fungi, smuts and other pests.
Quinn called his product "Kamut," from the ancient Egyptian word for wheat. He guaranteed his customers organic, GMO-free, non-hybridized, high-protein Khorasan wheat. Kamut has a full, nutty flavor. It’s called "sweet wheat," and has little of the bitterness or aftertaste associated with other types of wheat. With cereals using Kamut, "you don’t have to use any sugar," says Quinn. "It stands on its own."
There is now a whole Kamut industry. The mill Quinn started originally employed 10 people. Today, there are about 110 Kamut growers in Montana, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with a total of about 18,000 acres. Quinn purposely keeps the acreage per farm small. "We don’t allow any of our growers to have over 20 percent of their production in Kamut," he says. "I’m adamant that it not become a monoculture crop."
About 60 percent of the grain goes to Europe, and half of that to Italy. "They make more products out of Kamut than all other countries combined," says Quinn. "When it comes to food, the Italian imagination never quits."
Keeping the profits at homeThe organic revolution is on. Organic products are sold in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and in 73 percent of all conventional grocery stores. Even Wal-Mart is dabbling in organics. The U.S. organic market is expected to grow 21.4 percent between 2002 and 2007, reaching a value of $30.7 billion, according to DataMonitor, a London-based research and analysis firm.
Montana has done a decent job of tapping into this market. Only 209,000 of the state’s over 5 million acres of wheat fields are organic, but Montana rates first nationwide in organic wheat production. It comes in second for other grains, and also for peas, lentils and flax.
But vanguard agriculture is about more than just organics. Just ask Dean Folkvord, the 44-year-old CEO of Wheat Montana. He began by taking over his family farm, which his father started in 1958 with 250 acres. Now it’s 15,000 acres. Folkvord doesn’t see expansion as necessarily bad. "That’s the way the rest of the world works right now," he says. Efficiency matters, however: "When we started farming, we were getting 20 bushels per acre. Now we’re at 40, even 50 bushels per acre."
Wheat Montana brands its product with names such as "Bronze Chief Hard Red Spring Wheat." Although it’s not USDA-certified organic, Wheat Montana uses an independent lab to ensure that there are no herbicide or pesticide residues in its products. The company advertises its products as "Better than Organic."
Folkvord has also figured out something else. "One of the myths is that farmers produce food," he says. "That’s not true. They grow the raw products."
The Montana mystique has done little to encourage the logical next step in agriculture: food processing. According to the Department of Labor, zero percent of Montana’s population was involved in food processing in 2003. This means that processing, retailing, and branding — the source of real profits in food — eluded the state. Rather than building prosperous rural communities, Montana’s commodities bolster the bottom line of corporations such as Cargill, ADM, and ConAgra.
Folkvord’s solution: the Wheat Montana Bakery. Located right off Interstate 90 in Three Forks, the bakery is a compact Western version of the textile factories of New England. The full processing, from seed to sandwich, all happens under the roof of the "Wheatplex," which houses a mill and retail store, in addition to the bakery. The bakery sells 120 types of breads, rolls, flours, pancake mixtures, specialty grains and wheat berries, the original form of a grain of wheat. Its products include bagels, "Big Sky" breads, dinner rolls, French bread, seven varieties of buns, and specialty health breads made with organic oats.
Wheat Montana now has 110 employees, from farmers to bakers, and its own Web site. The company just opened its sixth franchise store in Montana. "We’ve been growing at 22 percent per year. Any faster than that and it gets kind of scary," says Folkvord.
Locals look at Folkvord as a model for agricultural change. "You have to admire the guy," says Three Forks Mayor Gene Townsend. "He could have just as easily fallen flat as succeeded." The WheatPlex has "been really good for Three Forks," says Townsend. "Of Dean’s total employees, about 80 to 85 are from right around here."
Southwest of Three Forks, across the mountains, is the Dillon-based Great Harvest Bread Company, which has 206 bakeries in 39 states, with 18 more scheduled to open within the next year. Founded in 1976 in Great Falls, Great Harvest specializes in whole-grain breads, granola, muffins, scones, cookies, rolls, dog biscuits and bread sticks.
Great Harvest CEO Mike Ferretti says his company buys exclusively Montana wheat from about 20 farmers. Yet Great Harvest does most for local economies through its retail and franchising. Each of its six Montana stores grosses about $475,000 per year. Franchise bakeries typically pay between $7 and $14 per hour, according to company spokeswoman Maria Emmer-Aanes; after a probationary period, employees usually get full medical and dental benefits.
Huge hurdles remainDespite its successes, vanguard agriculture has had a relatively modest impact on the economy. To make a real difference in the West’s flat counties, "you’ve got to have a comparative advantage," says Fraser McLeay, a New Zealand marketing specialist now based in Missoula.
This economic term, much bandied about in the last decade, sprang from the fertile mind of a wealthy, self-educated 19th century Englishman named David Ricardo. He held that countries that do not focus their economies on areas where they are naturally strongest are doomed to failure and stagnation. Ricardo applied this theory to England’s Corn Laws, which protected local growers. He said England should import corn from countries that could produce it more cheaply. It took 23 years, but in 1846 Britain repealed the Corn Laws. Agriculture has never been the same.
But does Montana have any comparative advantage in producing grains? McLeay is silent, and then shakes his head. No: Inexpensive labor, low distribution costs, cheap land and unregulated chemical use give the edge to China, Argentina and the Ukraine. Currently, 104 countries produce wheat. In 1981, the U.S. produced half of the world’s wheat supply; today, it’s down to 25 percent.
Any comparative advantage Montana has is wiped out by transportation costs, says Gov. Schweitzer. A monopoly on rail service allows Burlington Northern Santa Fe to charge Montana producers as much as it does producers in Ohio, Kansas or the Dakotas, even though Montana is closer to Pacific ports. "All we can do is write postcards to the (railroad) barons in Fort Worth," Schweitzer says. "And they write back, saying, ‘Well, isn’t that too damned bad?’
"If anything, we have a comparative disadvantage, save one," says Schweitzer: "the Montana Mystique."
In other words, the very mystique that has helped destroy rural Montana may be the key to rebuilding it.
Few Montanans understand the dark side of the mystique better than Schweitzer. In a Washington Post interview, Schweitzer, who has a longtime background in agriculture, talked about what he learned after being whipped by Republican Conrad Burns in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Schweitzer hired a focus group to find out why he lost, and learned "that a significant percentage of Montana men are mule-headed, unwilling to change their minds on issues, even when presented with information showing their views are not supported by facts."
Four years later, Schweitzer began his run for governor with ads of himself "on a horse or holding a gun." He won.
Now, to sell his state’s hard red spring wheat, the governor is trying to leverage the bright side of the Montana Mystique: the state’s reputation for clear air, clean water and good soils, and the intangible romance of the "Last Best Place."
Schweitzer recently made a deal with the Taiwan Flour Mills Association, promising officials a boatload of exclusively Montana hard red spring wheat. The deal was at first a source of exasperation. "You wouldn’t believe the people coming up to me, saying, ‘Oh, Governor, this is complicated, really complicated,’ " he says. The system is not designed to keep grain separated. "The worst," he says, "are companies controlling the loading process in Portland. They don’t want a ship leaving the dock to be carrying Montana grain. They want it to be Cargill grain or ADM grain."
The state got around the resistance to branding by asking the Taiwanese to narrow their request. "We asked them to tender a request for hard red spring wheat with a certain amount of protein, this much ash content (mineral residue), this much gluten, with this test weight and this amount of moisture," says Kim Falcon, Montana’s wheat and barley bureau chief. "The chances are good they are going to get mostly Montana wheat."
Finding customers — and getting them their product — are just the first of many challenges for rural Montana, however. Agriculture’s reluctance to change has all but crushed the next generation of farmers. "I think the next generation has already given up hope," says David Oien.
Not entirely. Take Roy Benjamin of Shelby, a tall, lanky, earnest and articulate 19-year-old. Of the 40 members of Shelby High School’s class of 2004, he’s the only one who went into agriculture. Born into a farming family, he never wanted to do anything else. So he skipped college and plunged right into farming — organic farming.
He sells to Montana Flour and Grains, a USDA-certified organic flour mill in nearby Fort Benton. Benjamin likes the tactile feel of organic farming. In a market "where you sell your wheat to somebody who is basically working for the Chicago Board of Trade, I like bringing my wheat to Montana Flour and Grains. You give it to them physically."
Like other organic or niche food growers, Benjamin sees his kind of farming as a way to stabilize declining rural counties. The intensive management of the land requires more people and more time on the land, he explains. This in turn creates demand for tires and equipment, and stimulates the local economy.
The future of farming in Montana, he says, lies in two directions. People like himself will run smaller organic farms — although Benjamin says he may have to double or triple his current acreage. And people like his brother will run "large, large operations … It’s not one bit unrealistic that my older brother will eventually run 20,000 acres. The thing is, we’ll both be feeding one family on the proceeds.
"I don’t want to farm half the county in order to make a living," he says.
Hard-nosed realismBob Quinn’s beliefs are set in concrete. Literally. His motto is molded into the slab surrounding a flagpole in his garden: "To know the past is to appreciate the blessings of the present and inspire great deeds in the future."
For farmers, facing the past isn’t easy: Their livelihood, commodity agriculture, has helped destroy local communities. That painful fact goes against the theology that farmers are the providers for the world, a notion that carries a remarkable power to blind. But as one farm advocate says, "The only people making money in eastern Montana are the guys selling plywood to board up the windows."
Montana’s organic and alternative farmers, aware of their imperfections, are trying to walk into the future with their eyes wide open. They rely on two pioneer virtues: ingenuity and risk, attributes, ironically, that seem to have vanished from commodity agriculture. In challenging received wisdom, these farmers have had to become hard-nosed realists. They know they could get knocked on their asses. In fact, most of them already have, but so far they have managed to get back on their feet.
"There’s a lot of people beating their breast about what’s happening to rural Montana," says David Oien. "But there is no precedent that says agricultural prosperity lasts forever. Look at the Fertile Crescent. Agriculture blossomed and then it disappeared. Cultures evolve."
Still, vanguard agriculture has succeeded in raising more than crops in rural Montana; it has also raised hope. It’s done this not so much by the food it grows or the chemical-free methods it uses, but by putting people back into the equation. After all, it is people, not commodities, that will keep rural Montana alive.
Slowly, vanguard agriculture is breaking the paralysis brought on by the state’s reliance on its identity — on the Montana Mystique — at the expense of its long-term interest, which lies in viable communities.
And in the end, resurrecting Montana’s communities may prove the key to restoring its land. As Wendell Berry has observed: "The land cannot prosper unless the people using the land are prosperous."