Across the fruited plains of Big Sky Country grow a powerful number of different commodities. From cereals and pulses to oilseeds and specialty crops, the state produces an impressive variety of crops reaching dinner tables around the world.

But first, the Montana State Grain Laboratory – the only federally licensed crop quality testing facility in the state – meticulously inspects these commodities, ensuring they are fit to feed a king.

A Grain of Truth

Grain inspection plays a critical role in establishing the value of the crop. However, grain labs do not determine price – just quality – providing buyers and sellers with unbiased analysis.

Crops delivered to Montana’s State Grain Lab in Great Falls and Plentywood undergo a protein analysis and a handful of other quality tests before given an official grade. To guarantee the best analytical results, all records, equipment and procedures are available for federal examination including accreditation from the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) every three years.

“The FGIS Auditor reviews our overall performance compliance rating, which was recently completed in October 2016,” says Bureau Chief Greg Stordahl of Montana’s State Grain Lab. “Montana’s overall performance score for designation criteria is 92 percent.”

Accuracy is also assured by sending national and local samples to other grain labs.

“We should all be grading the same way compared to other states and agencies,” Stordahl adds, referring to frequent collaboration with other states’ grain labs.

Montana helps neighbors like North Dakota and Washington state by testing grains for mycotoxins (molds), and California sends between 500 to 700 samples of khorasan, an ancient wheat trademarked around the world as kamut.

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“We are one of the main labs for khorasan sampling and even receive samples from Europe,” Stordahl says. “Canadian commodities also come to the lab to be graded. We are very active all over.”

In addition to issuing export certificates, international trade teams frequently visit to see the lab operate.

“It’s important to show what we look for, how tedious our process is and, ultimately, what they are buying,” Stordahl says. “At the same time, visitors are looking at how to improve their standards.”

These visits are critical to the buying and selling of Montana’s commodities internationally. Grain handling and weather conditions are consistently the top two issues impacting quality – one controllable, the other not.

“We can’t help the farmer with weather conditions, but our biggest recommendation for accurate grading is getting a representative sample,” Stordahl says.

Crops are analyzed for a variety of factors, including but not limited to: dockage, moisture, infestation, odor, temperature and foreign material. Issues resulting in a significant drop in quality, most commonly from a Grade 1 to Grade 2, differ by commodity.

For example, wheat is most affected by test weight and shrunken and broken factors. For dry peas, it’s cracked seed coat or chalky damage. Chickpeas suffer most from green damage and splits, whereas lentils get degraded most for insect damage and quality of color and appearance. Before submitting samples, growers are encouraged to review Montana’s grading standards.

wheat Montana

Winter wheat grown in Dutton, Montana.

Changing the Game

The lab has recently had a surge in sample testing. As of harvest time in fiscal year 2016, the lab tested more than 15,460 official and submitted samples over a three-month period. That number rose to more than 26,180 during the same three-month period of fiscal year 2017 (which began in October 2016).

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“We are already set to surpass last year’s overall numbers,” Stordahl says.The lab has also gained almost 80 new customers. Reasons for this surge are new food trends, and improved production and research.

“We have experienced a 10 to 15 percent increase in pulse crop inspections,” Stordahl says. “Official inspection has had a more drastic effect – a 70 percent increase,” as pulses (unlike wheat) must be officially graded before leaving the state.

This heightened demand for top quality pulses will continue to boost Montana grain sales and business at the lab into the foreseeable future.