Food & Agriculture Development Center

RCEDA was awarded a contract as a new Food & Agriculture Development Center in 2019. As an organization, and for our clients, we are grateful to all that supported our application and made our successful application possible thereby providing greater resources for agriculture and food entrepreneurs in Ravalli County and beyond.

The centers support economic development by ensuring that more of the state’s food, agricultural and energy dollars circulate in Montana. The network provides training, coaching and technical assistance, including:

  • Product development, testing and analysis
  • Regulatory compliance training
  • Education on industry dynamics and technologies

RCEDA provides the following services through our Montana Women’s’ Business Center Sub-Center and through our contract with the Montana Cooperative Development Center:

  • Business planning and development
  • Market research
  • Business networking
  • Access to financing
  • Cooperative development

RCEDA is collaborating with a number of partners to carry out three projects that will conclude the spring of 2021.

Programs & Projects

Farm Grown, Hemp-based Potting Soil

The use of peat in potting soil for farms and bedding production is not sustainable and many farms are looking for a substitute. Various studies have shown that a significant proportion of the peat component in potting soil could be substituted with composts. 1,2,3 A study in Tasmania, using composted industrial hemp and bovine feedlot waste, resulted in a 300% increase in leaf area and a 45% increase in flower head diameter in soil mixes using from 75-100% hemp compost compared to the control. (The control was regular potting soil. Mixes were supplemented with hemp compost tea.) 4

Peat moss provides the bulk of most potting soil mixes used by nurseries and market farms that grow their own starts and sell bedding plants to the public. It is an excellent medium because it is relatively uniform and holds water, air and nutrients supporting plant growth. Peat is mined from bogs where organic matter is converted to peat under anaerobic conditions. Peat takes hundreds of years to form and is thus not a renewable resource. Peat is still relatively cheap and usually provides 50 to 75% of the volume of most mixes used by farms and nurseries. Peat is supplemented with other materials to add nutrients, increase drainage and change pH in the different potting mixes used for particular cultivars.

Organic farms, and farms focused on sustainability, have used compost successfully for decades as a fertilizer in soil mixes, supplementing the peat base. These farms are focused on increasing sustainability and decreasing off-farm inputs. They do this both out of conviction and because of customer concern about the problem of fossil fuel intensive production. Importing peat-based potting soil is therefore incompatible with these values and the demand of their customers for products that minimize ecological impact. Why should these farms continue to pay for the transportation of a non-renewable product, with a low value to weight ratio, over long distances to provide organic material that could arguably be produced on their farms?

There are problems with using compost as the base of potting soils.5 The problem is mainly one of consistency. Compost is made using various different organic components, mainly different species of plants and different kinds of animal manures. This results in inconsistencies in texture which can cause problems for both the water holding and drainage characteristic necessary for soil mixes. There is also the problem of nutrient availability and pH. Compost has to be produced carefully and used at the right stage in decomposition to have the suitable nutritive and chemical characteristics.

If a farm could economically use compost made from a uniform feed stock it could potentially produce a compost that substitutes for the peat portion of their soil mixes. There may also be wider tolerances in regard to the nutrient profile of the compost, i.e. older, less fertile compost could be used successfully. After all, peat is itself nutrient poor, largely providing the medium to hold added nutrients.

If a farm already had enough plant waste from one plant species, that could be easily be recovered, then experiments with creating a suitable compost might be useful. The main hurdle is being able to produce enough recoverable, uniform biomass on the farm to substitute for the volume provided by peat.

This is where hemp could prove suitable. Hemp has already proven to be at very top of biomass producing crops per acre. 6 If one were to choose a plant for maximum yield of biomass, hemp is at the top of the list because of its rapid, dense growth and ability to compete with weeds. Hemp plants also have documented resistance to microbial attack, a benefit potential conferred in its compost. The hemp compost used in the Tasmania study was also pretty course, primarily straw and seed trash. This may provide the texture that produced such positive results in term of water infiltration. A farm could produce enough hemp fiber, in crop rotation on a portion of its production area, and conceivably produce enough material to meet its yearly potting soil needs. A more likely scenario is that farms already producing hemp for other purposes, could provide the waste fraction of their crop for compost production and have a local market for this material. Harvesting of the hemp could be done with existing machinery such as a silage chopper and other equipment used to handle compost production.

The practical and financial feasibility of this needs to be demonstrated, so RCEDA proposes funding a pilot project using existing farms and production conditions. The study would involve 2 farms already in production of hemp to provide two different feed stocks: one primarily made up of hemp stalks and other a combination of hemp stalk and leaves. Separate composts would be made out of each. Yourganic Farm proprietor Leon Stangl and Steve Elliot of Lifeline Produce have decades long experience producing compost at scale on their respective farms in the Bitterroot Valley. They also make and use tonnage of potting soil and want to transition out of peat base. They have agreed to implement and oversee the production of compost and the potting soil mixture. The composting process would proceed using the techniques already used by these farms. As in the Tasmania study, hemp compost tea would be produced and used to fertilize the plants.

A randomized trial will be developed through consultation with the Western Agricultural Research Center (WARC). WARC is one of seven facilities that make up the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) Research Center System. The randomized trial would involve testing on a different bedding plant species and using various concentrations of hemp composts compared to un-amended potting soil. Records would be kept on water infiltration and plant performance. A randomized comparison would be done in two locations, at WARC and a participating farm, and an additional 6-8 farms would be supplied potting soil, with different concentrations of hemp compost, to test informally against their current potting soil mixture. Records will also be kept on the amount of raw biomass that it takes to create a subsequent amount of compost. A cost analysis will then be conducted to determine if there is a financial benefit to on-farm potting soil production and document any increased expense. RCEDA, with the assistance of cooperators, will produce a project report that will be in the public domain and published through RCEDA’s promotional channels and made available to Montana farm organizations and the Montana Department of Agriculture.

1. Investigating the Possibility of Peat Substitution in Olive Nurseries by Green Compost, Mugnai, 2007
2. Experiences with Wastes and Composts in Nursery Substrates, Chong, 2005
3. Evaluation of compost as a viable medium amendment for containerized perennial production, Wilson 2004
4. Hemp Compost as a Component for Potting Soil, Bound, 2011
5. Why Compost is Not a Good Choice for Professional Growing Media, Lopez, 2017
6. Industrial hemp for biomass production, Sassuarde, 2013

Hemp Infused Cooking Oil

Laura Garber and Henry Wunsch of Homestead Organics have been using hemp infused safflower oil for two years and like the taste and have noticed health benefits. They got the idea from living part of the year in Germany. The nutritional and phyto nutritional benefits of various compounds in hemp have been documented and are being tested and developed by many firms in the US. There have also been many studies showing that the ingestion of foods, such as fresh vegetables, has greater health benefits attributed to the chemical compounds found in these foods than the ingestion of therapeutic doses of concentrated and purified doses of those same compounds.

This project would not be focused on making specific claims about the therapeutic benefits of the infused oil related to concentrations of cannabinoids such as CBD or CBG. Instead the benefits of this test product would be that it confers unspecified health benefits that accrue from eating a plant with proven nutritional and phyto nutritional benefits. Laura and Henry have already shown that the product is palatable, easy to make and tasty. They make this product using a commercial available and inexpensive emersion blender that has a programmable thermostat.

The product is made using Montana made, organic safflower oil and seedless female flower heads from Montana grown hemp. Wan-Yuan Kuo, Director of MSU Food Product Development Lab, at Montana State University, will design the plan for constituency and consumer sensory testing. The test would start with the product Homestead Organics presently uses, made with two different methods, and tested at Fidelity Diagnostics lab in Missoula for compliance on THC concentrations, as well as for the presence and concentration of other cannabinoids and nutritionally significant compounds such as terpenes. When the oil is certified compliant, other testing will include smoke point, free fatty acid, peroxide iodine and microbial, to be done either at the MSU lab or at NP Analytic Laboratories. Consumer sensory trials will consist of 100 samples provided to consumers to take home to try in salads and cooking. The project will include incentives to encourage completion of an online survey through Food Product Development Lab system. Finally, a report on the project would be created, documenting consumer preference and a production cost analysis. The study would also include an analysis of food safety laws relating to public sale of this product. The resulting document would be in the public domain and the results published by RCEDA and made available to Montana farm organizations and the Montana Department of Agriculture.

This is a product that has the potential to add value to Montana grown and processed safflower oil and hemp. Montana oil seed processors and hemp producers could produce this product at scale. With proper guidance from Food and Consumer Safety Section of DPHHS and the local health departments, small hemp farms could also potentially add this to their product line. It is also something that can be made at home, potentially increasing the health and well-being of Montana families.

Reimaging School Lunch

Reimaging School Lunch is the brainchild of Laura Garber (Homestead Organics Farm) and Cultivating Connections.

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