Combine harvesting wheat

Golden waves of grain color Montana’s landscape. The state’s farms rank No. 2 and No. 3 in the nation for the number of barley and wheat acres harvested, respectively.

These two crops are vital to Montana’s agricultural success. In 2015, farmers produced more than 5.6 million acres of wheat, while barley was grown on 990,000 acres. Wheat varieties include hard red spring, hard red winter, hard white, soft white and durum.

Helping advance the industry is the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, a statewide producer-funded and -directed checkoff organization. Founded in 1967, the committee celebrates 50 years of success in 2017. Like other commodity checkoff programs, it collects a small amount of funds earned by farmers’ wheat and barley yields annually, which are used to support the industry and farmers themselves.

Currently, the checkoff assessment is 2 cents for every bushel of wheat and 3 cents for every 100 pounds of barley sold, although growers have the option to receive a refund if they request it.

“These growers are going above and beyond in making an investment in their future,” Bureau Chief Collin Watters says.

Montana Agriculture 2017 [INFOGRAPHIC]

Research and Development

The committee’s board of directors – who are all farmers appointed by the governor – determine funding priorities. One very important area is research and development.

“We help fund many research projects at Montana State University (MSU), everything from developing solutions for insect and weed issues to researching and addressing plant disease and plant breeding,” Watters says.

Historically, the biggest highlight of the checkoff program has been the long-term plant breeding efforts – primarily for wheat. Developing and releasing new varieties allows farmers to choose a modern type that has been adapted to Montana’s growing environment.

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“Each year, there’s a new variety released from MSU’s breeding programs that goes to growers,” Watters says. “The variety may help them improve their yields. They have improved disease resistance and contain overall improved quality characteristics.”

Watters says a new wheat variety can take up to 15 years of development. Farmers who started the checkoff program decades ago saw the need for long-term plant breeding projects, which included a need for a long-term funding solution. That funding solution is provided by the checkoff, which is critical to research and progress.


Beyond Borders

Another major committee focus is marketing, with much of that aimed at international markets and exports. About 75 to 80 percent of Montana’s wheat and barley crop, on average, is exported. Trade and Marketing Manager Cassidy Marn says markets and buyers are greatly tied into the state’s wheat breeding program efforts.

“A lot of our overseas buyers have set the standards in our breeding program based on the specifications that they desire,” Marn says. “So that’s really helped push us forward – I think even in comparison to a number of other states in the United States.”

The committee has a number of international programs it works with, including U.S. Wheat Associates and U.S. Grains Council for the state’s barley.

“Both have offices all over the world; they’ve helped us hone in on potential new markets and address concerns and opportunities in current markets,” Marn says. “They also help coordinate surveys each year, which are immensely helpful.”

Some 15 to 20 trade teams visit the state each year to get an up-close look at Montana’s wheat and barley. For Marn, showing off Montana’s high-quality wheat and barley crops to visitors is the best part of her job.

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“We take them to farms and grain elevators, show them the transportation system or show them the production process,” Marn says. “We even try to get them on a combine.

“Here, we’re used to a lot of space and not a lot of people,” she adds. “We are used to seeing our food grow in our backyard. People from other countries visit, and they’re not used to seeing that. They really appreciate seeing where their food comes from, starting with the kernel.”