After buying two Billings seed companies in four months, Butte-based Northern Seed is expanding into the Bozeman area with one of Montana’s first private seed research facilities.
“I think it’ll benefit Montana’s ag industry over time. I’m very confident that out of this will come a value-added variety or seed variety that isn’t in existence today,” said Ron Ueland, president of Northern Seed, which distributes wheat seed and other small grains. The company also offers seed conditioning and treatment services to growers.
The facility is located in Four Corners on a 4-acre property formerly occupied by WestBred, a wheat breeding company owned by Monsanto. It’ll have a lab for screening seed varieties developed in crop breeding programs around the world, which Northern Seed will market through Westfeeds and Montana Seed and Grain. In addition to screening, Northern Seed will take on contract research at the facility.
Northern Seed bought Westfeeds — which has feed operations in Billings, Great Falls, Dillon, Miles City and Lewistown — last November, and Montana Seed and Grain, which sells seed in Billings and northern Wyoming, this past February.
Ueland said that after making the acquisitions company leaders realized the need for developing seed varieties specifically for Montana. It spurred them to buy the former WestBred property.
Five people will staff the research facility initially, but that figure could grow to as many as 20, Ueland said.
Around the state, people are hopeful about what may come out of the facility.
Jayson O’Neill, spokesman for the Montana Department of Agriculture, said the facility could have an impact on the state’s efforts to increase the diversity of crops grown in Montana. He cited the state’s push to use dry peas and lentils as rotation crops. Research can give growers more options to help people grow better crops with higher yields, he said.
Matt Flikkema, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said the group is excited about the facility and the expansion of seed research. That type of research has already helped growers in western Gallatin County like Flikkema, who farms near Manhattan. The area has issues with the sawfly, which cuts through hollow wheat stalks right before harvest, causing the plant to fall and its stalk to break.
Montana State University worked with WestBred in the past to develop wheat with a solid stem in an effort to limit damage from the insect. Flikkema uses the variety and calls it a “stopgap measure,” because not all the plants that grow from the seeds have a solid stem, and those that do have to use energy to grow solid that could otherwise be used in developing the wheat berry.
“We have no control. There’s nothing on the horizon that we know about to control the little bugger,” Flikkema said. “There’s just a myriad of research that can go on.”
Proximity to MSU was one of the main reasons Northern Seed decided to buy the Four Corners property, Ueland said. It puts the company’s researchers close to the talent at MSU, and he said there are plans to start an internship program specifically for MSU students.
The Bozeman area also has a relatively diverse climate and geography for Montana. It’ll allow the researchers to test different things applicable to different areas of the state all in one location.
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