By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
With a second grant in hand, a new cooperative is testing the market for a specialty crop to grow on the Hi-Line and elsewhere in Montana.
Members of the Great Northern Growers Cooperative are raising gluten-free grains developed by Montana State University-Bozeman, and are commissioning a study to find out how marketable the grain is. The cooperative plans to market the grain to people with medical conditions that require a diet free of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
"We're extremely excited about the project," said co-op member Gary Iverson of Sunburst.
The cooperative, which filed bylaws and articles of incorporation with the state in February, received a $29,000 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture's Growth Through Agriculture program earlier this month.
Ty Duncan, executive director of the Montana Cooperative Development Center in Great Falls, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Enterprise program announced this week it awarded a $34,000 grant to Great Northern Growers.
The grants will be used to pay for the study and other projects like developing a Web site and coming up with a brand logo.
Great Northern Growers is the second alternative agriculture cooperative the area has looked at in recent months. Riverview Hutterite Colony near Chester started an effort last fall to investigate a baby carrot cooperative in the region, with a processing plant possibly located in Chester. A feasibility study for that cooperative began last fall after the Montana departments of Agriculture and Commerce both awarded grants for the project.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said the feasibility study is done, and came back "with a modified yes."
Tuss said the study showed the crop can be raised in the area, but several other factors need to be worked on, including developing marketing for the project.
"How do you enter the market not just in north-central Montana but maybe beyond?" he said.
Some Liberty County farmers are raising test plots of baby carrots this year. The Riverview Colony has been raising and processing the crop for nearly 10 years, and proposed the cooperative when it couldn't meet demand.
Tuss said the cooperative will probably eventually build a processing plant, but much more work has to be done first.
He said Bear Paw Development is pleased to see efforts like the carrot cooperative and Great Northern Growers.
"That's really fundamentally what economic development in the agricultural sector is all about, is adding value to what we grow," he said.
The Great Northern Growers study will focus on transporting and selling products made from gluten-free grain, Duncan said, including looking at the demand, identifying wholesalers and retailers, and looking at available transportation and other factors in Montana.
"Do we have a solid market and can we sell to that market and make a profit?" he said.
Iverson said the consultants will be selected in about 10 days. The study is expected to take about six months to complete.
The initial research done before the co-op was created was promising, Iverson said.
"We're fairly certain this project is going to work. We've had a lot of market research on it but there's still a lot of work to do," he said.
The idea for the business came from research MSU-Bozeman was doing on developing gluten-free grains, he said. The growers initially will use three grains the university has developed.
The cooperative plans to expand its operations, branching off into other health-related products that would benefit people with problems like diabetes, attention deficit disorder, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and autism, as well as products for people on low-carbohydrate diets.
"There's other areas that we're looking at," Iverson said.
Iverson said the cooperative probably will produce its own products.
"We may go directly to the supermarket shelf," he said.
As the cooperative grows, it plans to build a processing facility, probably somewhere in rural Montana.
Duncan said there appears to be a strong market for the product. People who are gluten-intolerant shouldn't eat wheat, barley, rye or their derivatives, but gluten-free products like tapioca and rice don't make good bread and cereal and other foods typically made from grain, he said.
The first products the cooperative would market would probably be flour and hot cereals.
The co-op has five members. Along with Iverson, Mike Wallewein of Sunburst, Gary Woods of Inverness and Belgrade producers Bruce Wright and Dean Miller are the initial members of the business.
The project is starting small, with a total of about 150 acres planted. As more of the seed for the gluten-free grain becomes available, the co-op members expect more people will join.
"We have to determine how many acres we want to have next year," Iverson said. "We are going to be out looking for new members."
He said the cooperative members are trying to find a new way to make a living in Montana agriculture. It is becoming more difficult to compete with other areas of the country that receive more moisture, he said.
"We don't believe the future of agriculture in Montana is a mom-and-pop farm where they're raising a huge acreage of wheat," Iverson said. "We'd like to keep a few people on the farm and hopefully this can do that."