The Montana Department of Agriculture’s State Grain Laboratory is an official agency that is proud to be meeting the changing inspection needs of Montana’s producers, handlers, and processors. The Montana State Grain Laboratory was established in 1920 and moved to their current location in 1951. There have been several remodels, with the last one in 2011.
Recent revisions to the crop insurance program require producers to plant crops in rotation, and Montana producers responded by planting peas, lentils and garbanzo beans along with other specialty crops. In 2015, Montana grew 11 million bushels of pulses on 600,000 acres. In 2017, Montana farmers doubled their production on 1.5 million acres. In fact, Montana produced more pulses than any other state for the first time ever in 2017. The rapid increase in pulses created an unprecedented increase in pulse inspections for the State Grain Laboratory without decreasing grain inspections.
Traditionally the laboratory workload was 80 percent wheat and barley inspections and 20 percent other products. Now pulse inspections account for 45 percent of their inspections and wheat 50 percent. It is important to recognize that the change is because the increase in pulses came with reduction of fallow ground and wheat acres. However, wheat production has not deceased, nor the need for wheat inspections. Additionally, over 2 million acres of farmland has recently come out of the Conservation Reserve Program in Montana, so grain production is also increasing.
Greg Stordahl, State Grain Laboratory, Bureau Chief, points out that the State has successfully responded in multiple ways to address the increased need for pulse inspections. Additional staff has been added and trained, the fee schedule has been revised to ensure cost recovery is adequate for both pulses and grain since they require different time to inspect, and scheduling of inspection personnel has been revamped to ensure timely service is provided.
In addition to providing official wheat, barley, and pulse inspections the State is responsible for providing inspections of specialty products such as camelina, crambe, safflower, and other items under Montana State standards. The laboratory also provides barley germination testing for the malting industry along with protein and falling number testing unofficially for products not under the United States Grain Standards Act. Vomotoxin and aflatoxin tests are also routinely provided.
Greg says while there are challenges to providing the necessary services, they have found solutions. The greatest challenge is that Montana is a large State and travel in winter months can be extremely difficult. With the main office located in Great Falls and another laboratory in Plentywood most customers can be reached in two hours. However, as Greg points out, it’s a six-and-a-half-hour drive between offices in good weather. To ensure customers outside of the two-hour range receive service, the agency has licensed other State agriculture employees to provide sampling service for these customers. Each office has a scheduler that plans the route for each day’s work to ensure service is provided in the most efficient method. The State also has a courier service that picks up samples each night. Couriers leave at 5 PM and return at 3 AM with samples from elevators along their route. Couriers bring in 60 percent of the daily samples and the rest come in by mail, private carries like FedEx, and their office drop boxes. As Greg notes, there is always something to do first thing in the morning, and throughout the day.
The laboratory traditionally provided inspections mostly to producers who wanted to know the quality of their crop for marketing purposes. While this practice continues, most requests for services now come from grain handlers and pulse processors. The State has approximately 8,000 customers comprised of producers, elevators, processors and buyers. There are 188 grain elevators in Montana and most submit samples. An unofficial inspection agency typically provides service for domestic shipments and the State provides service for export shipments.
With up to 20 different commodities to inspect on a routine basis, Montana’s inspectors have diverse skills. So much so, that they seem to always be selected for openings at FGIS. While the State is proud that its inspectors are held in such high regard, there seems to be a never ending need to recruit and train new inspectors. Currently the State has five inspectors in Great Falls and two in Plentywood. Five to seven seasonal employees are added from July to October to assist with the harvest workload, and a couple remain on part time throughout the year.
Two years ago, the State received help from the Kansas Grain Inspection Service to handle wheat inspections when several inspectors were lost to FGIS. The State has one full time bean inspector, however last year’s unexpected volume of garbanzo beans overwhelmed the one inspector so Montana requested assistance from the State of Washington. This year Montana is adequately staffed to provide all the service needed. Greg points out that, Montana also assists other official agencies, and has done so for many years. Known for its accuracy in testing for falling number, Montana has provided falling number testing for official agencies throughout the United States for many years and continues to do so.
The State Laboratory plays an important role in promoting Montana grain and pulses. Greg says that they will have at least one trade team from somewhere around the globe in their office each month to learn how the laboratory ensures the quality of what they buy. Groups from around the United States also come and are amazed at their inspectors’ ability to analyze such a diverse number of products.
Greg and his crew also work with the Wheat and Barley Committee, and the newly formed Pulse Committee, to head off problems and provide new tests that the marketplace needs. One example is their assistance in the acceptance of a new wheat variety with an unusual characteristic. Several years ago, breeders developed a hard red winter wheat named Jet. Jet provides increased yield, greater protein, and improved baking quantiles. The unique property is that every time it is handled, and the kernels rub against each other and take on a polished glassy appearance to the point of appearing to be frost damaged. The State Laboratory worked with FGIS to ensure inspectors throughout the official system could identify the variety and not improperly downgrade this superior product. Working with the Wheat and Barley Committee, the laboratory is informing foreign buyers about this unique characteristic to promote Jet’s acceptance.
Greg is also working with an equipment manufacturer to provide a hand-held protein analyzer that producers can use to determine the protein level in pulses. The Montana Pulse Committee and crop insurance companies are hopeful that this instrument will allow producers the ability to quickly determine one aspect of their crop’s value.
Although last year a drought decreased overall production and therefore inspections, Montana has received abundant snowfall this winter, so hopes are high for a large 2018 harvest. The pulse industry is continuing to build processing plants and one that is scheduled to open this year will require onsite grading, a first for the State. Greg’s goal is to expand the agency’s onsite inspections.
With all the growth in production, the future for the Montana State Grain Laboratory looks bright, and Greg and his crew look forward to continuing to meet the changing needs of the Montana grain and pulse producers, handlers, and processors. For more information about the Montana State Grain Laboratory click here to view their website.