Dean Folkvord, founder of Wheat Montana in Three Forks, attended Dr. Perry Miller’s Sustainable Cropping Systems course as a guest lecturer on January 21, 2014. A farmer, entrepreneur, and MSU graduate (class of 1982), Folkvord spoke with students about the evolution of Wheat Montana and the future of his business. Dale Folkvord, Dean’s father, purchased the first sections of the Wheat Montana Farm in 1958, and the farm has grown steadily over the years to encompass a swath of land that historically included 65 separate homesteads. With especially low precipitation rates in Three Forks, the farm mentality is “do more with less.”
Accordingly, Wheat Montana has evolved away from a summer-fallow system, in which cultivable land is left idle for an entire growing season, and toward a no-till system that helps to retain water. In dryland Montana, this system has proven to significantly impact farm yields and is widely accepted as an appropriate method of conservation farming. Out here, every bit of water counts; snow trapped in wheat stubble over the winter months is essential in maintaining soil moisture for the following season, and timely diversified crop rotations help to ensure that available water is used to its maximum potential.
Though it might be more expensive than Wonderbread, Wheat Montana’s average profit per loaf is a mere twelve cents. The wheat flour itself does not represent the main production cost; Rather, packaging and transportation mandate the prices that we see on the shelves in Town and Country, or even in Wal-Mart. As Wheat Montana grows steadily, the company has garnered the interest of large grocery chains, and even TJ Maxx, where its Whole Bran Flax Seed product can frequently be found on the shelves. In order to keep up with demand, Wheat Montana has expanded its network of growers to include farmers statewide, and in some cases, farmers from surrounding states and Canada. They also supply ingredients for Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon based company that is now steadily growing due to Costco’s purchase of their goods.
When it comes to food, trends are important. Wheat Montana pays attention to its loyal customers, continuing to supply bagels and half-loaves even though the profitability of those items pales in comparison to the immensely popular High Fiber, Flax and Sunflower loaf. And as consumers increasingly demand whole wheat products that have a similar color and texture to the traditional white wheat flour, Dean has chosen to cultivate hard white wheat. While this variety maintains all three components necessary to make a wheat product “whole”—the bran, the germ, and the endosperm—the natural light color combined with intensive milling results in a product that is white, fine and great for baking.
As for the future of Wheat Montana, organic certification is paving the way. The National Organic Program, managed by the Agricultural Marketing Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), stipulates that synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used1. However, consumers who demand non-GMO wheat may not have done their homework; according to the USDA, there is no firm evidence demonstrating that such a thing exists on U.S. markets2. Those who increasingly demand organic should not anticipate complaints from wheat producers. Organic wheat has the earning power of $18/bushel, while production costs stand at only a fraction of the cost of inputs (herbicides, fertilizers) used in conventional wheat production.
So the next time you’re at the grocery store, staring down the long and perhaps ominous aisle of breads, look for the resealable plastic flour bags and the rainbow of bread loaves. Not only are you likely to find something that suits your palate, you’ll end up with a product produced close to home by an operation with a track record of adaptability.
1. National Organic Program. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop
2. Statement on the Detection of Genetically Engineered Wheat in Oregon. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2013/06/0127.xml