Created in 1987, the state-funded program provides grants and loans to projects that increase value-added agricultural products in the state.
“A lot of people are aware that Montana grows wheat and barley, raises cattle and has very strong agricultural roots. However, in the ’80s there were some visionaries who realized we didn’t produce a lot of our own food,” says Angie Nelson, program manager of the Growth Through Agriculture program. “Most of our commodities were shipped out of state for other manufacturing companies to make into the food we eat, and then shipped back.”
The Growth Through Agriculture program aims to support local food producers and processors, and the demand has been significant. In 2016, the program reviewed 36 applicants requesting more than $1.2 million in funding for their projects. There were 27 projects funded to the tune of $650,000, with grants ranging from $2,000 to $150,000.
From 2011 through 2016, 212 projects have been funded – an average of 35 projects per year – for a total of close to $3.6 million. During those years, the funded projects created close to 300 jobs. And, because the program requires a dollar-for-dollar match, the total investment in Montana agriculture was more than twice what the state funded.
One such operation that benefited from the program is Stricks Ag, a grain merchandiser and industry expert. Expanding its operations in the small town of Chester, this company was founded by two young Montana farm families – the Streits and the Wicks.
The commodities side of the company started in 2014 with cereal grains and expanded to include pulses – chickpeas, lentils and peas. Stricks Ag received close to $150,000 in grant and loan money in the 2016 Growth Through Agriculture application cycle for the expansion of their pulse-processing facility. Jill Streit, CFO for Stricks Ag, says the Growth Through Agriculture program best fit their project.
Stricks received one of the largest Growth Through Agriculture awards in 2016, but Streit says that the program is valuable no matter the size of the project. In addition to funding, she says the program provides support and a network of resources.
“I’m working with some other projects now where people come to me to ask advice about Growth Through Agriculture grants and whether it’s worth it or not to apply – it’s absolutely worth it to apply,” Streit says. “It’s a great avenue to not only fund, but to access a network of people who are willing and able, and want to help you succeed.”
The company had 10 employees in Chester – a town of 880 people – prior to their expansion, and now has 25. And Streit says they’re not done hiring yet. The families have children who want to be involved in agriculture.
“It’s a huge leap of faith, but we confidently believe that by adding this expansion to our area, we are increasing the diversity of agriculture and adding to the future,” Streit says. “We are invested in what we are doing and we know that it is adding value now and in the future to agriculture in our state. It’s totally worth it.”