Forget farming the old-fashioned way

Small farmers make bread, manufacture pasta to avoid foreclosure

It's safe to say that 12 years ago, Dean Folkvord never would have pictured a bustling deli shoehorned between his grain silos out here on a lonely sweep of Montana sagebrush.

But today, Mr. Folkvord's sandwich shop and bakery, which sells 10,000 loaves of fresh wheat bread every day in grocery stores across the West, is a symbol of how small farmers still can thrive in American agriculture.

Like rare wildflowers blossoming on the prairie, a new generation of "micro-agrarian entrepreneurs" have retooled their farms to deliver products that large agribusiness doesn't.

From manufacturing pasta to growing mint for beverages, they're targeting smaller niche markets as a practical way to dodge foreclosure.

"I realized that as a farmer, I am in the food business, and not just the supplier of a raw commodity who grows a crop, sells it to a buyer, then goes home," Folkvord says. "I can have more say about my own future the longer I hold onto my wheat and the more value I add to it."

Folkvord's story is almost legendary: It begins in the late 1980s, a decade after he graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman, where he went on a rodeo scholarship.

While buying the family farm from his parents, Folkvord pondered the future and decided it looked bleak. So he tried something new.

He founded Wheat Montana Farms after experimenting with a wheat-seed hybrid that was hardier, yet possessed better baking qualities. From that, Folkvord developed recipes for nine different kinds of wheat bread, spicy bagels, and chemical-free flour for health-conscious consumers.

"It takes bread to make bread," he says.

Economists say struggling farmers have two choices to compete in a world dominated by global agribusiness: increase the size of farms and take advantage of technology and bioscience to cut costs, or be creative and broaden the definition of what a farm does.

Those who have embraced the creative approach have tried everything from converting old farmhouses into bed and breakfasts to transforming former pastureland into nature preserves where visitors pay to enter.

And then there's Folkvord's approach.

"The success of Wheat Montana has been absolutely extraordinary," says economist John Baden, executive director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, a conservative think tank that champions free-market solutions to agricultural problems. "I drive 20,000 miles around this part of the world every year, and I've never seen anything like it."

Wheat Montana controls all aspects of production from the planting of seeds to bread packaging and delivery.

"You have to be flexible enough to know the market is talking to you, to adapt to changing consumer tastes, and yet stay the course long enough to make money," Folkvord says.

Emulating Folkvord, however, is far more difficult than merely having the will to try something new, says Gary Brester, associate professor of agro-economics at Montana State University, where Wheat Montana is often examined as a case study for students planning on returning to the farm.

"It takes a whole group of skills to be able to make something like that work," Professor Brester says. "Most small farmers struggling with low cattle and grain prices simply don't have the investment money it takes."

The second problem, Brester says, is that by becoming niche entrepreneurs, agrarians invite more risk, which, in turn, offers the danger of devastating losses. "Niche markets are not a panacea," he says.

Still, across the rural landscape, a multibillion-dollar alternative-agriculture economy is emerging. In 1997, a study by the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., found two promising opportunities for small farmers: raising meats free of growth hormones and antibiotics, and organic grains.

"Organic and semi-organic products represent a growth market," says Rose Jaspersen, who oversees the center's rural opportunities and stewardship program.

To get a sense of the impact of the niche movement, one need only travel to America's "pasta belt" extending from eastern Montana to western Minnesota.

Here, 1,100 durum wheat farmers are members of a cooperative venture called Dakota Growers Pasta Co. Through marketing savvy and the fact that several large pastamakers exited the business, Dakota Growers Pasta has become the third-leading producer of packaged noodles in the US.

Farmer Greg Downs, who produces durum wheat for the pasta venture, says his investment hasn't produced much cash flow from the crop, but it has reaped him dividends from holding stock in the company.

"To save agriculture with value-added enterprises probably won't happen, because most of the time you have to grab a piece of the market share that large companies often are unwilling to part with," Mr. Downs says. "You cannot afford to compete with their advertising dollars."

Downs says until the government develops a protectionist policy that shields small farmers and provides economic incentives for agriculturalists to be more creative without betting the farm, the fast attrition of farm families on the plains will continue.

But that, he notes, is as much a cultural investment as an economic one.

"I lost seven neighbors over the last two seasons," Downs says. "That means a group of second- and third-generation farmers who are no longer in existence.... Unless things change, it's going to reach the point where the people no longer own anything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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