When Dean Folkvord finished high school in 1978, his father Dale bought a wheat farm near Three Forks, Montana. Their only plan was to sell wheat. Since then, they have built a company Wheat Montana,, that sells wheat, mills flour, bakes bread and operates eight casual restaurants. Their story illustrates how farmers can make a direct connection to consumers, and thereby create an alternative to conventional, commodity agricultureâ€”which isnâ€™t working well in much of the rural west.
The conventional agricultural model still dominates, of course. Itâ€™s based on feeding the most people, at the least cost, with commodity products, grown with lots of chemical inputs. It drives down prices paid to farmers, and itâ€™s one reason why Montana is a poor stateâ€”45th in the nation in household income.
Folkvord, 46, has blazed a different trail. Wheat Montana, as he explains it, does more than sell wheat, flour and breadâ€”it tells a story, and helps to forge a link between the consumer and the family farm. (A picture of his family adorns Montana Wheatâ€™s bread and flour packages.) Most farmers, when business is good, expand â€œhorizontallyâ€ by buying more land. By contrast, Folkvord has expanded â€œverticallyâ€ up the value chain, capturing a bigger share of the prices people pay for food. As a result, his company today employs about 190 people, and provides work for another 100 or so through suppliers and partners.
This past weekend, Iâ€™ve been learning a little about agriculture, mining, land use and conservation issues in the west at a conference in beautiful Big Sky, Montana, sponsored by PERC (The Property and Environment Research Center), an NGO that promotes market-based solutions to enviromental problems. Disclosure: PERC paid the expense of reporters who attended the event. More about PERC in a posting later this week.
Folkvord came upon his business model by necessity. He wasnâ€™t making enough money as a wheat farmer in the early 1990s, and so built a bakery. â€œWe really didnâ€™t want to get into the bread business, but we felt it was something we had to do,â€ he says. The same goes for his first bakery and deli, which he opened, with trepidation, right by the farm; he and his dad figured theyâ€™d sell sandwiches to local farmers and ranchers, as well as a few travelers driving by on nearby I-90. â€œPeople showed up from Seattle and Minneapolis and they wanted expresso,â€ he says. â€œAll I knew about expresso was that I didnâ€™t like it,â€ he says. He ordered expresso machines from Bozeman and learned how to make lattes. â€œWe realized, wow, thereâ€™s something going on here and all of a sudden we were in the food business,â€ he says.
Today, Wheat Montana has eight retail outletsâ€”bakeries and delisâ€”around the state, and Folkvordâ€™s looking to expand to Washington state and eventually California. â€œIt plugs into a trend out there in America where we might be getting tired of fast, fried food and people want foods thatâ€™s fresh and good for you,â€ he says. (Although the popular cinnamon rolls arenâ€™t exactly slimming.) He sells fresh bread in five states, with wheat varieties being his big seller. Wal-Martâ€™s the biggest seller of his flour. And he ships wheat kernels to specialty bakeries around America, including Spring Mill Bakery near my home in Bethesda, Md.
Interestingly, Folkvordâ€™s products are not organic. His farm gets only about 12 inches of rainfall a year, the growing season is short and itâ€™s at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet. Half his land lays idle each year to replenish the soil, heâ€™s got weed problems and he says it wouildnâ€™t be practical to go organic (although other Montana farmers grow lots of organic wheat). Instead, he has his flour and bread tested by a third-party to make sure they contain no artificial chemical. and markets them as â€œchemical free,â€ GMO free and â€œbetter than organic.â€ Yes, thereâ€™s some pressure to go organic, but he stands behind the healthfulness of his break and says, â€œWeâ€™re Norwegian and bull-headed and weâ€™re not going to change.â€
Recently the Folkvord family sold a big stake in Wheat Montana to outside investors. They are looking for capital and expertise to get national distribution for their products and for the chain of deli. â€œThe Big Skyâ€™s the limit,â€ says Folkvord. Does this mean they are no longer a family farm? We could argue about the family farm but you can drive to Three Forks and seeÂ wheat fields for yourself. Just try to find the â€˜farmâ€™ where Pepperidge Farm grows wheat.