By Lori Wickett, Communications Director, Montana Wheat & Barley Committee

On a damp, sun-trying-to-shine day in March, ten Montana farmers make the trip to Portland, Oregon. It seems a bit abnormal, really. Here are men and women who make their living raising crops on the vast Montana prairie, united for a special visit. Back home, they each grow a variety of commodities: wheat, barley, chickpeas, mustard, oilseeds, etc. and the furthest some of them have traveled was the state Class C basketball tournament. Most of them just met.

These agriculture producers are taking part in an annual tour of Portland’s shipping ports, the Wheat Marketing Center’s quality labs and area commercial bakeries. Little known to folks outside of Montana ag circles, 80% of Montana wheat ships overseas to the Pacific Rim. Like any good business, these producers want to increase their understanding of how their product arrives (by rail, barge or truck), loads on vessels on the Columbia River, and then ships more than 5,200 miles from where it was originally grown on their farm. They are also learning the bigger question: why Montana’s high quality wheat is in such demand by buyers in Japan or Taiwan.

Foreign trade is extremely important to Montana’s economy. In 2023, more than $2 trillion in wheat, barley, lentil, dry pea and chickpea sales contributed to the state’s GSP. Montana pulse crops have a similar foreign demand, with 66% of our pulses exported. Mexico purchases more than 75% of U.S.

barley exports, but the great majority of Montana-raised malt barley is contracted by Molson Coors, Anheuser-Busch and local breweries to arrive on a shelf near you. But back in 1967, it wasn’t that easy to gain attention for Montana grain.

With the world full of wheat supply and the need to sustain the family farm, Montana’s grain leaders began actively promoting Montana grain overseas in the late 60s and early 70s. They created the Montana Wheat & Barley Committee (MWBC) through a legislature-approved assessment per bushel. One of the most valuable opportunities comes during the summer when foreign trade teams visit. They spend time with Montana producers on-farm: they walk fields, talk in the shop and with good timing, ride along for harvest. This insight of family operations cannot be measured – it results in strong relationships with buyers such as Japan who has purchased Montana wheat for more than fifty years.

The world economy is changing, however. More people are expanding their diets with a wider variety of foods due to improved economic conditions. That should bring additional customers for Montana, which sets the quality standard. Montana is hampered, though. Our long freight distances and ever-increasing input costs raise the price over much of the competition. The good news is that our superior traits can win for the buyer, if they help make their end-use product more competitive.

To educate growers and buyers on quality, the Montana Wheat & Barley Committee just published a Montana Spring Wheat Varieties guide. This piece explains why traits such as flour yield or mixing tolerance are so important to buyers. MSU’s Cereal Quality Lab’s scoring helps growers consider planting one variety over another. Meanwhile, a buyer will see this guide as reinforcement that Montana is paying close attention to his needs, whether he bakes bagels or makes noodles.

MWBC began working with Montana Pulse Crops to assist them with their assessment program, as many wheat and barley producers are replacing their fallow fields with chickpeas, lentils and dry peas to improve soil health and water retention. It is a good example of farmers taking a diversified approach to their operations while stewarding land condition, and it contributes to growing a quality crop.

Our ten growers returned home from their “follow the grain” experience with a different perspective. Some said they had no idea how important our quality traits were to the buyer. Now they are thinking differently about the immense impact Montana’s grain industry makes on the world, one quality kernel at a time. For more information, go to

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