Flathead Farmers Talk Specialty Crops with Tester

by Tristan Scott

WHITEFISH — When the subject of agriculture crops up in Montana, the conversation tends to center on grain and cattle.

But in the Flathead Valley, an abundance of specialty crop growers — farmers raising fruits, vegetables, hops, and nursery plants — have a stake in the state’s agriculture industry, and with a new farm bill looming on the horizon, they want to make sure their voices are heard and their interests protected.

To that end, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, on Oct. 20 gathered a roundtable discussion of a dozen local Flathead Valley farmers as part of his “Barnstormin’ Farm Bill” tour, convening at Tom Britz’s Glacier Hops Ranch near Whitefish to hear from specialty crop producers and farmers who are adding value to their crops by appealing to niche markets and an increased demand for local products.

The farm bill is an often overlooked mega-bill that sets policy on eating and farming in the United States, including what’s grown, what’s known about your supper, and how much the government spends in the process. The farm bill determines what crops the U.S. government wants to promote or protect and provides incentives to farmers to grow more of them. The most subsidized crops in recent farm bills are the so-called “row crops” — wheat, soy and corn — and smaller, specialty crop growers are often overlooked in the sprawling legislation.

In 2014, Tester helped pass a four-year Farm Bill that also included robust investments in critical livestock disaster assistance, crop insurance, and the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program, geared toward first-generation farmers and ranchers looking for a leg up in the industry.

Beginning next year, Congress will hold hearings and construct a new Farm Bill, slated for 2018 and setting another half-decade of policies governing what we eat and how we come to eat them.

The current farm bill covers crop years 2014 through 2018 and costs approximately $1 trillion. Of that total, approximately $44.5 billion was authorized for commodity programs, $89 billion for crop insurance and $57.6 billion for conservation programs.

But the interests of small domestic farmers are often eclipsed by the demands of big wheat and corn, and the Flathead’s farmers asked Tester what he can do to protect and incentivize their interests, while keeping at bay the massive markets that can easily gobble them up.

Mike Jopek, whose Purple Frog Gardens in Whitefish just wrapped up its 26th season in Whitefish, said many farmers have international markets, while most local growers in the Flathead Valley distribute locally.

“For some of us, our market is Whitefish,” Jopek said. “And we tend to compete with vegetables coming in from Mexico. The perspective of the small farmer is often dismissed, but it is also where the passion is.”

The availability of Farm Bill dollars to the small farmer is also extremely limited. There are almost no federal subsidies available, and while some money is directed toward specialty crop research and grant programs to provide infrastructure assistance, a disproportionate amount of the money is earmarked for large-scale operations. Meanwhile, crop insurance isn’t as effective on small farms growing a variety of produce, rather than a blanket crop, like wheat or corn.

On a small farm, powdery mildew might devastate the strawberry patch, but the bumper crop of broccoli is going gangbusters.

“We’re really the small potatoes of the Farm Bill,” Jopek said. “We have hundreds of thousands of dollars in small infrastructure needs that would benefit us more than crop insurance.”

Tom Britz, who spearheaded the hops movement in the Flathead Valley with the creation of Glacier Hops Ranch four years ago, said he’d like to see additional research dollars allocated for scientists and hop growers eager to seek out other applications for the fragrant, cone-like flower, which is most commonly used as a flavoring and stabilizing agent in beer, imparting a bitter, tangy characteristic.

At Glacier Hops Ranch, Britz’s 1-acre postage-stamp field of experimental rhizomes — a research project sponsored by the Montana Department of Agriculture and two local breweries — he has determined that hops can indeed thrive in Montana, a state whose expanding craft beer market has created an uptick in demand.

Still, hops is a relative newcomer to the agriculture scene in the Flathead Valley, with Britz’s farm constituting a research patch dedicated to more than 40 kinds of hops varieties, testing to see what grows the best here.

Britz procured the first commercial hop harvester in Montana, but the Flathead Valley needs a more centralized processing facility if more farmers intend on putting product out there, he said. Distance is a critical issue, he said, because of the hops’ fragility.

“I know you can grow hops here,” he said. “The question is what do you do when it’s time to harvest them?”

Britz said other applications for hops are beginning to emerge on the scene, such as using the conic flowers as a sleep agent. But exploring those alternative applications means adding to the research pool.

Vincent Smith, professor of economics at Montana State University, said specialty growers might expect to see a small expansion of funding in terms of the amount of money invested in beginner farming programs, but it will be miniscule when compared to the sprawling bill’s total budget.

Although agriculture is a key industry in Montana, at about $3 billion annually it is a small fraction of the $370 billion generated nationwide.

“I think small growers can expect to see some gestures at the margins to help their needs, but big wheat and corn are not going to let specialty crops get more than a miniscule fraction of the farm subsidies,” Smith said.

Tester said the Farm Bill could include language that would expand the length of time that grants are available to specialty crop producers, as well as prioritizing small farmers producing fruits and vegetables that are local and sustainable.

He said that hearing concerns from small specialty growers early on in the process gives them an advantage.

“I think the advantage here is having this conversation early, because when you talk about this at the 11th hour you’re just hoping. When you start thinking about it early, you’ve got no excuses,” Tester said.