Officials set sights on agricultural development

Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Madison

Increased agricultural processing in the Golden Triangle region would grow the area’s economic base and create jobs, according to area economic development officials who spoke at a panel discussion on agriculture Thursday hosted by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“Obviously agriculture is what built this area,” said Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Association, which is working to build an agri-tech park in eastern Great Falls.

Agricultural processing is a base industry for northcentral Montana, Doney said.

“But we still send the vast majority of our agricultural product out of the area without any value added,” he said.

Even if Montana processed 5 to 10 percent of what it produces, whether by cleaning it, crushing it or color separating it, it would hugely benefit the regional economy, according to Doney.

“That creates great paying jobs,” he said.

Tester held the panel discussion to get ideas of what could be done at the federal level to help boost agriculture and agricultural processing in Montana.

“These aren’t just listening session for me,” he said. “We like to take good ideas and put them into action.”

One major barrier for agricultural processing in Montana is the lack of access to shipping containers.

BNSF Railway used to have an intermodal hub in Shelby, where shipping containers were unloaded from trains and put on to semi-trucks and vice versa. When the railroad company closed that hub several years ago, it meant there was no longer a place in Montana where shipping containers could be loaded onto trains, said Mark Cole of the Dick Irving Inc. and Shelby Intermodal Hub. That was a major setback, he said “For the last six years we have been working hard to try to reestablish that service in Montana,” he said. Justin Flaten, an audience member and president of JM Grain in Great Falls, said it’s hard to compete without access to container shipping. JM Grain markets pulse crops, which include peas and lentils. The company currently sends its product by truck or railcar to Seattle, where it’s transferred to a shipping container and shipped overseas.

Montana is an ideal place to grow pulse crops, but for the state to be competitive in the pulse market, it needs to have an intermodal hub, Flaten said.

He also agreed that more grain-processing facilities in the state would benefit the economy.

If lentils could be washed and bagged in the state before being exported, it would add $70 to $80 a ton to their price, he said.

He also suggested that Tester work on revenue crop insurance for peas, which currently isn’t available.

While the GFDA is working to develop an agri-tech park in Great Falls, Bear Paw Development Corporation is working to develop a similar park near Havre.

“We’re pretty strategically located to do a good bit of valueadded agriculture,” said Paul Tuss, executive director of the organization.

The park would focus on energy and work with the biofuel research taking place at Montana State University – Northern, said Pam Lemer, value-added agriculture coordinator for Bear Paw Development.

She also told the crowd Thursday that energy and value-added agriculture are the future of Montana.