TALKING SHOP: Montana Organic Conference, Great Falls, MT, Dec. 5

New connections are the focus
of Montana’s first organic conference

Farmers, organic experts, and vendors converge in Great Falls to share ideas.

By Shannon Burkdoll


S p o n s o r B o x
Montana Organic Organization

Montana’s first-ever organic conference in Great Falls December 5 also marked the birth of the Montana Organic Organization (MOO for short). “Making connections” was an appropriate theme for this brand-new conference, with about 125 farmers from all corners of the state gathering—many for the first time—to share information, network with vendors, and learn from organic experts. The event was sponsored by MOO, the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO).

Montana has more than 200,000 acres of organically farmed land and is first in the nation in organic wheat production. “This is absolutely critical to our future,” Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ralph Peck said of the conference and of his state’s overall organic efforts. “It’s those who step forward who make the difference.”

Some of the most well-attended workshops were those covering alternative agronomic methods, including green manures, raising organic livestock, and organic vegetable production. Attendees clamored for “more time next year” for these and other workshops as well as for an increased focus at the exhibition tables for developing trade partnerships.

Other conference highlights included:

Perennial organic wheat research in the public domain

Wheat breeder Stephen Jones, Ph.D., of Washington State University received a standing ovation after sharing his struggles to breed seed varieties for a sustainable future and for his determination—contrary to current trends at land grant universities—to keep ownership of these critically important varieties in the public domain.

Jones research includes crossing traditional wheat seed with modern varieties and developing regional varieties suited to unique ecosystems and adapted to growing methods that eschew heavy chemical inputs. “If you’re not selecting your wheat under low input systems, you’re losing an important trait in wheat,” he said. “We took 162 traditional varieties and crossed them to modern varieties, which is the basis for our organic program.”

Washington State University utilizes 11 certified organic acres and two organic farms in north-central Washington. The university will offer an undergraduate organic curriculum within a year or two, Jones announced. In addition to studying organic annual wheat, Jones has been developing some perennial wheat varieties to combat erosion caused by wind. These varieties are similar to wheatgrass, he said, and produce a head but to not die off. “They maintain their seeds and roots and stay green longer,” Jones explained. “They don’t go to seed but go down to the roots and crown.

“It’s large project. We have both hard and soft wheat in the perennial wheat program.”

The perennial wheat is currently being grown on research farms but is not yet available to wheat producers, Jones said. “We currently have 5-year-old plants in the field. We’re also working on perennial chickpeas as a companion.”

Though the industry may not be ready for perennial wheat, Jones said he researches what growers want, not what the industry wants. “I was hired to have ideas and input; I was not hired to sit in my office and wait for the industry to come to me and tell me what to do,” he said. “We need to have a vision of what agriculture should look like and not base it on what the industry thinks it should look like.”

Organic buyers, sellers forum

At the conference’s popular Buyers and Sellers Forum, twelve representatives of organic business discussed their particular and unique needs. From Echinacea and alfalfa to beef and lentil production, organic producers made connections with buyers from across the state and nation.

Sam Schmidt of Montana Milling said he is looking to purchase multiple organically grown grains for the Conrad flour mill, while David Oien of Timeless Seed announced that he was hoping to contract organic seed growers for a new Manna wheat variety. Allen Moody, a crop farmer and livestock coordinator for Organic Valley Family of Farms’ Meat program made known his quest for organically grown beef. Ronald Schlecht spoke of SK Food International’s plans to provide bulk organically grown food ingredients—such as flax, soybean, hard red winter wheat, safflower and lentils—in the northwestern region.

The forum also included farmers selling organic products, such as Mikel Lund (who sells certified organic beef and natural health products) and Dag Falck of Nature’s Path (who sells organically made cereal bars and bread). “We’re working to connect the consumers with the farmers,” said Falck. “If we farmers want to sell [a producer’s] product, we’ll put them in touch with the mills and help them to get in touch with the consumers.”

Montana Organic Organization

Montana’s organic producers united during the conference, creating the state’s first organic organization and mission statement: “To advocate and promote Montana organic agriculture through a statewide network of organic producers, handlers, retailers and consumers.”

Conference coordinator Jill Davies said the organization would unite the farmers/producers as one unit rather than segregating them by their operation types. The farmers/producers emphasized the need for education, both inside and outside the organization.

“The services called for included the education of farmers, the public, the policy makers and students; information sharing through newsletters, list serves and a Web site; hosting annual meetings; policy advocacy; facilitating the building of trade and creating more opportunities for folks to share, encourage and learn from one another,” Davies explained. “Several options were put forth for a name for our fledgling organization, but there wasn’t enough time for the group to choose one, so for the time being, ‘MOO’ (Montana Organic Organization) will do.”

Montana Organic Organization Coordinator Jill Davies contributed to this report.