By Tim Leeds
A task force composed of legislators and representatives from agricultural organizations will meet to see if anything can be done to help the troubled finances of the Montana State Grain Laboratory in Great Falls.
"It will be interesting to see if anybody has any innovative ideas to raise money," said state Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, a member of the task force.
The task force meets Jan. 23 at 10 a.m. in Great Falls.
Will Kissinger, assistant director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, said the lab is in a dire economic situation. If something isn't done soon, it will have to close, he said.
The lab is funded entirely from fees assessed for testing grain to determine quality like protein and moisture content. Kissinger said that, like all of agriculture, the lab is affected by the drought. The amount of grain tested has dropped, and with it the lab's funding.
"This year in particular, the numbers have been dropping way down," Kissinger said. "Looking historically, we haven't had a worse year since 1985."
The Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, which oversees the use of funds from a fee assessed on grain sold in Montana, has temporarily funded the lab. Kissinger said once that money is used up, the lab will have to close.
The purpose of the task force is to look at alternate sources of money for the lab. Kissinger said one source could be permanent funding by the Wheat and Barley Committee. Two members of the committee are on the task force, Dan DeBuff and Will Roehm. Roehm is representing the Montana Grain Growers Association on the task force.
Kissinger said another possibility would be to try to get money from the state general fund, although that's a very remote possibility. Another would be to start testing products other than grain, although looking into that in the past hasn't worked out.
The lab considered testing sugar beets and hay before. Kissinger said the technology in the lab could not test beets, and it would have taken too much money to add to the facility to test hay.
Another possibility to keep the lab open is to privatize it.
"From what we've gathered from the industry, that's not a favorable option," Kissinger said.
Tester, who farms out of Big Sandy, said it's important to keep the lab as a neutral third party run by the state.
Kissinger said most ag producers have said that is what they want as well.
"The growers have expressed in that past that they do like the state involved," he said. "We're obligated to be unbiased and have accurate analysis."
The grain lab, which is licensed and tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been operating since 1920. Tester said if it was shut down or privatized, that would change the way grain farming is done in Montana.
"It's one of those things you never think about; you just use it," he said. "You never give it a thought it won't be there."
Kissinger said his understanding is that the USDA has an obligation to somehow provide the service to Montana farmers, but privatizing the lab or requiring farmers to send samples out of state might be part of providing the service.
While sending the samples out of state might work, he added, it would be highly inefficient. Keeping the lab in the state would work much better for grain producers.
The lab has already cut back on expenses, Kissinger said, but its current income still isn't enough to keep in operation. The lab laid off about six employees, down from 11 during high use in the early 1990s.
Layoffs cause another problem. The technicians have to be highly trained and certified, Kissinger said. If demand increases and more technicians need to be hired, it may take up to a year to get someone trained for the position.
The other members of the task force are Rep. Edith Clark, R-Sweetgrass; Dave Tweet, president of the Montana Grain Elevator Association; Ken Hanson and Earl Bricker of Montana Farm Bureau Federation; Del Styren, president of Montana Farmers Union; and Carol Lambert, president of Women Involved in Farm Economics.
The meeting is at the Wheat Building, 750 Sixth St. SW in Great Falls. Kissinger said its job is to look into possible changes that could be made to save the lab. At the meeting, the task force will decide whether future meetings are necessary.
For more information about the lab or the task force, contact Kissinger at (406) 444-2402, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.