Agricultural Innovation

By Beacon Staff

Despite the challenges that persist in the evolving agriculture industry, the active farming community in the Flathead Valley continues to be one of the most innovative in the country.

How that community can remain strong and survive in a difficult climate was the focus at the first-ever Flathead Valley Agricultural Forum at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Oct. 11.

Almost 200 people attended the half-day event, which was hosted by the Montana Land Reliance and covered subjects like sustainable management and included speakers such as Ron de Yong, director of the state’s Department of Agriculture.

De Yong, a native to the valley who grew up farming and ranching on a family plot near Creston, focused on how local farmers can fit into the global system and maintain diversity while keeping pace with emerging trends.

“Rural America is supported by agriculture,” he said. “What we need to do as producers is figure out how our unique system fits into this big diverse agriculture plot.”

The global agriculture industry is expected to expand significantly. Food needs will increase with population growth and as countries become more developed. In Montana, agriculture remains the largest industry, generating more than $2.4 billion a year. In the Flathead Valley, almost $34 million is generated annually on crops and livestock.

Roughly 60 percent of the agriculture commodities in the state and 90 percent in the valley are exported overseas, Mark Lalum, general manager of Cenex Harvest States, pointed out.

Wheat remains a major local cash crop, producing the equivalent of 107 million loaves of bread annually, Lalum said. Other crops grown in the region, such as lentils and barley, are also in high demand.

“Because of the economic powerhouse of agriculture, exports need to become part of the game,” Lalum said.

Montana is known for its quality wheat, which gives the state a growing advantage.

“Part of that changing system is becoming much more diversified. The new system will focus much more on quality, not quantity,” de Yong said. “It will focus more on fair prices instead of cheapest prices. It’s going to actually focus on production, processing and distribution of locally grown food much more than big transportation of food.”

The challenges that local growers face are significant: short growing seasons and erratic, cold weather patterns combined with limited transportation options and shrinking farmlands.

“It’s tough farming in this valley,” Lalum said after the forum.

“The consequences of making a mistake are huge financially. That’s the struggle.”

De Yong talked about ways farmers can maintain stability and even flourish by remaining true to the characteristics that have long defined Flathead Valley agriculture.

“Flathead Valley is really innovative, more innovative than anybody else in the state and more innovative than most places in the country in agriculture,” he said.

One area that appears to be changing is food consumption habits. High rates of obesity and diabetes have altered how nutrition is valued. The 2012 Farm Bill will include an added emphasis on nutrition, de Yong predicted.

“Most of the time as a farmer I just dismissed that part. I thought, ‘Well that has nothing to do with me,'” he said. “But nutrition is important now. What they do with nutrition will affect everyone who is doing value-added agriculture.”

For example, revamped school lunch programs and food stamp requirements could create new opportunities.

“What they do with the nutrition part is now important to agriculture beyond just getting the Farm Bill passed,” de Yong said. “It’s going to affect that whole transition to a new food system. We need to pay attention to the nutrition part.”

Another topic covered at the forum was the importance of integrating cattle grazing onto farmlands. Although chemical sprays have become popular, manure remains the best way to replenish the nutrient cycle and improve the produce harvested, Markus Braaten of Cenex Harvest States said.

“There is a real economic advantage in livestock manure. It might outweigh the value of the livestock themselves,” he said.

Braaten also emphasized how no-till crop production can increase organic grow ability, which is increasingly in demand.

Renewable resources are another trend, although the technology and feasibility remain in question at the moment, he said.

“The renewable fuels are an intriguing area and warrant some more research,” Braaten said. “But these are the things that excite me. What if the price of diesel stays higher or gets higher? … The renewable fuels are an area we need to explore.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.