Young people interested in expanding their knowledge about agriculture headed to Sidney for the MFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Ag Tour. Stops on the June 1-2 tour included Sidney Sugars, Meadowlark Brewery, Safflower Technologies, MSU Eastern Ag Research Center, Steinbeisser Farm, and the Intake Diversion/Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. The group even got to taste some authentic Yellowstone Caviar.
“This is the fourth year that our YF&R Committee has held an Ag Tour. We wanted to bring people to the eastern side of the state, especially to highlight what is going on with the Intake Diversion/Lower Yellowstone Project,” said Ben Johnson, who serves as District 6 Chair of the YF&R Committee. “We learned about the situation with the pallid sturgeon, which is an endangered species; why it’s an endangered species while the paddle fish is plentiful; and how lawsuits to change the Intake Diversion/Yellowstone Irrigation Project could affect the environment and economy of the entire valley.”
Johnson explained that the dam limits the number of fish that can go up river above the dead zone, which was caused by the creation of Lake Sakakawea in the 1950s. “We learned that there are only 50-100 breeding-age pallid sturgeon left, but over the past several years they had successful hatchery release with a 70-80 percent survival rate for the first year. It will be a couple more years until the fish will reproduce, so the wildlife biologists are working to make sure the hatchery fish can reproduce in the wild.”
The huge concern for people living in the now-fertile valley is lawsuits by an environmental group to stop the building of fish ladders, and drastically change the efficacy of the Intake Dam, which would devastate the area.
“This irrigation project has turned high plains dessert into fertile low lands that support wildlife, farming and community wells,” Johnson noted. “There thousands of acres affected by this amazing irrigation project, which has had a positive environmental and economic effect on the entire area.”
This is also the area where many paddlefish are harvested for their eggs, which compete on the national scene for caviar.
“When you catch a paddlefish, you can take it the Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture station at Intake. They’ll clean the fish, give you the filets and keep the roe,” Johnson explains. In 1989, the Montana Legislature allowed Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture to implement the caviar program. The donated roe is made into caviar by Yellowstone Caviar with the proceeds from the caviar sales used for grants that enhance eastern Montana and the fishery.
Kim Gibbs, an instructor at Miles City Community College who helped plan the tour, found the Sidney Sugars processing plant to be especially fascinating. “It was amazing to see how they took the beets from a field and turned that raw product into a commodity we use every day,” Gibbs said. “An average sugar beet from this valley weighs five pounds and yields two cups of sugar. The plant ships their sugar in anything from a 50-pound sack to a railroad car, destined for the large cereal companies. The processing plant is extremely busy during beet harvest season which runs from August through March 1.”
Although Sidney Sugars is only one of two sugar processing plants not run as a co-op, that could change soon as farmers feel if they own the plant, they can make the necessary improvements.
Gibbs enjoyed learning about safflower grown by area ag producers and distributed as bird seed through Safflower Technologies. “The majority of seed is for the wild bird food market. They contract for the majority of the bird seed you buy in stores. It was interesting to hear that companies are picky about bird seed color; some want tan, some want white.”
A tour of Meadowlark Brewery covered how beer is made and the different roasts they use on the grain to get the flavors in beer, as well as how they use hops to add flavor.
MFBF YF&R Committee Chair Gil Gasper agreed that the Intake Diversion Dam was fascinating. “When people hear about the intake diversion damn, they picture a huge structure like the Fort Peck Dam, but unless you knew what you were looking for with this dam, it doesn’t look like one. About all you see is the flowing river and then some ripples. You really don’t even notice it.”
Gasper said the YF&R Tour allows young producers to experience what’s happening in agricultural production in different parts of the state. “We’re such a huge state geographically. We have Flathead cherries in the west and sugar beets in the east. This is a great way to showcase Montana agriculture and open our eyes to what’s out there. We might grow different crops, but we’re all tied into ag, so we have a common theme.”