By Brad Reynolds
Agriculture is pivotal to life in Montana. Without agriculture there is no food. Without agriculture there is no you.
Not all of us are in agriculture, of course. But we are all ag-adjacent. Roughly one in ten working Americans is employed in agriculture and its related industries. Our local grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops all rely upon ag products, while businesses in farm equipment sales and service cannot exist without ag producer customers. Agriculture is a vast supply chain with many hands working to keep the world fed.
“I think there’s a difference in mentality,” says Scott Gasvoda, comparing agriculture to other industries. “Competitors are an asset. Because at the end of the day, if we don’t all work together, the supply chain is not sustainable.”
Gasvoda spent 36 years working at Treasure State Seed in Fairfield, starting as a laborer and retiring as Vice President of Operations. Today, he works as a representative of Montech Seed Group, a buyers alliance comprised of eleven seed plants throughout Montana: Bruce Seed Farm, Big Sky Wholesale Seeds, Cahill Seeds, Circle S Seeds of Montana, First Creek Seeds, Golden Harvest Seeds, Golden Triangle Seed, Heartland Seed, Hodgskiss Seed, Treasure State Seed, Westland Seeds, and Wildhorse Seeds.
Each company works independently but pools resources to purchase the rights to new, better varieties of seed. Beneficial traits range depending on the crop, but ultimately, these varieties enable Montana farmers to produce higher yields to keep up with growing demand.
“It’s phenomenal,” says Bing Von Bergen, co-owner of Heartland Seed in Moccasin. “In my forty years of farming, I’ve seen yields grow from 30 bushels an acre to 60 bushels an acre of winter wheat. A lot of that is thanks to breeding programs.”
Breeding program researchers study and develop seeds with desirable traits, such as high yield and resistance to pests, like sawflies or wireworm. In some areas of Montana, these can decimate crops, minimizing a farmer’s profits—as well as our food supply.
“Nine out of ten calls I get are about sawfly,” says Jason Terry, second-generation owner of Golden Harvest Seed in Big Sandy.
Sawflies are a major problem because they lay their eggs inside wheat stem. When a larvae hatches, it chews its way out of the stem, and the wheat falls over, making it difficult to pick up with a combine.
Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s answer to this was Warhorse, a hard red winter wheat bred to produce a solid stem.
“Breeders have to plant several times to make sure these traits are consistent,” Terry explains. “When they have their foundation seed, they breed it to produce a registered crop, which is what we grow. A crop grown from a registered crop is certified, which is most of what I sell. It is the most economical way to grow a crop with desired traits.”
Unfortunately, the battle isn’t over once a crop like Warhorse is developed. Just as new strains of the flu continue to plague humanity, robust seed varieties can succumb to pests and diseases over time.
“What happens is that after a given period, a crop starts to revert to its parenthood,” says Gasvoda. “New certified seed has to be developed every year.”
To fund seed breeding research, each seed variety carries a “tech fee,” which a farmer pays to the seed plant, which in turn is passed along to the university or research center that created the foundation seed.
“That royalty goes back to the breeding program to help them continue to develop new varieties,” Von Bergen explains. “The farmer wouldn’t be paying it if it wasn’t beneficial to their operation. They’re okay with it because it helps them raise a better crop.”
Before seeds make it to the farmer, seed plants will test the success of a crop in their area. (Experiment stations are highly important in verifying these results.) For instance, Von Bergen and his business partner, Steve Grove, were the first farmers in the state to grow Brawl, a newly developed variety of winter wheat from Colorado State University. They were unsure how this variety would adapt to central Montana, but it has performed exceedingly well, and because of that, Brawl is a variety Heartland Seed recommends to local farmers.
“A seed plant is basically an information warehouse for farmers,” says Chrissy Hodgskiss, manager of Hodgskiss Seed in Choteau. “We’ve planted pretty much every crop that’s going to grow here.”
As farmers, the owners of Hodgskiss Seed know exactly how to optimize the success of seed varieties they offer.
“We know the agronomics, requirements for fertilizer, where to plant, and when to harvest. We have real-world experience with our products,” says Hodgskiss. “We specialize in putting the right crop in the right area.”
Farmers want the best possible product—be it seed, fertilizer, equipment, or anything else they may need—but staying up-to-date on the latest ag technologies is daunting work, and ultimately, there are only so many hours in a day. For that reason, a farmer places a fair amount of trust in a seed plant to keep them informed.
“I want whatever is good for the farmer,” says Terry.
A seed plant’s success is predicated on the success of local farmers. Ultimately, the more crops that are harvested, the more everyone wins.
“The more profitable a farmer is, the more affordable bread is,” says Von Bergen.
It’s basic supply and demand. The more wheat available, the less expensive wheat-based products cost.
Moreover, the state of Montana benefits economically from the sale of local agricultural products.
And, there’s a social impact as well.
“This is a very small community,” says Terry of his hometown. “I’ve seen in some areas, someone comes in and starts buying up farm ground from a farmer with one or two kids in school. That can destroy a community. I don’t want to see that happen here.”
The web of agriculture extends far beyond food supply. Farmers are stewards of local resources. They support local business and donate to local charities. Their children attend local schools and compete in local sports. Farmers are the lifeline of rural communities.
And we probably don’t thank them enough.
“I don’t think the general public realizes how many decisions a farmer has to make: what variety of seed to plant, what kind of fertilizer to use, what kind of equipment to buy… You don’t just get in a tractor and go seed,” says Terry. “It’s high risk, and if things don’t go just right, it can all go away.”
Farmers aren’t in it for admiration (though they certainly deserve it). They believe in honest work, and they lean on honest people to supply them with expert advice.
“Food is one of the basic staples of life,” says Hodgskiss. “We get the opportunity to make a difference.”
Seeds are the foundation of agriculture. And agriculture is the foundation of Montana’s way of life.