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An aerial view of the Pardue Grain pulse processing expansion in Cut Bank, Mont. (Submitted photo)

Pardue Grain facility will increase pulse processing capacity

CUT BANK, Mont. — Farmers in Montana planted 1,535,905 acres to pulse crops in 2017, up 24 percent from 2016's 1,209,039 acres, which was itself a 38 percent increase from 2015, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture.

While eastern Montana, and northeastern Montana in particular, remain the heart of pulse crop acreage, the crop has spread west, into the state's "Golden Triangle" in the north central.

Roger Sammons, CEO of Pardue Grain in Cut Bank, Mont., sees a need for more processing capacity in his area. Glacier County, where Cut Bank is the county seat, planted 69,147 acres of pulse crops in 2017, up from 50,216. Pondera County, to the south, more than doubled acres in 2017, going from 18,232 in 2016 to 44,141. Sammons expects further growth, noting that acres didn't begin climbing until about 2012.

"We are just in our infancy here," he says.

Pardue Grain hopes to put those crops to use with a food-grade processing plant capable of using 500 bushels — or 30,000 pounds — per hour. Sammons says the plant is about 30 percent built, with completion expected in October 2018.

He expects chickpeas, peas and lentils will come in to the plant from across the Golden Triangle.

"Acreage wise, there's enough pulse crops grown just in Glacier County to supply the plant," Sammons says.

The Pardue Grain expansion in Cut Bank, Mont., includes a new office built into grain bins.Pardue Grain's facility will be a "toll processor," which means the company never takes ownership of the crop. Instead, the new facility will process pulse crops for other buyers, Sammons explains.

Among the buyers with which Pardue Grain plans to work are JM Grain, a Garrison, N.D.,-based pulse processor, and Anchor Milling. Both companies have their own processing plants but need more capacity, Sammons says.

Shannon Berndt, executive director of Northern Pulse Growers, which represents pulse growers in North Dakota and Montana, says Montana has had "very little processing" done in state. Growers have had to deal with significant transportation costs to get pulse crops to market.

"This certainly will provide them a market closer to home," she says.

With increased processing, Berndt anticipates pulse crop acreage will continue to increase as well.

"It's just all around a good thing for agriculture in Montana," she says.

She sees a bright future for pulses domestically and globally as big companies continue to invest in pulse processing technology and new uses for pulses continue to be found.

It is the domestic market that Pardue Grain is focusing on. The food-grade equipment will make it suitable for processing of human and pet food.

"It's where the market is leading us," Sammons says.

The facility also will be fully automated. At full capacity, it will be able to operate 24 hours per day. It also, Sammons says, will utilize software and blockchain technology that will "give us an unparalleled traceability." He explains that will make it possible for the end user of a product to trace where it originated, "right down to the field."

A ceremonial July 6 groundbreaking for the facility featured officials from across the government, including from the state Agriculture Department and from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who Sammons describes as the only "actively engaged farmer" in Congress, also attended.

"Pulse crop processing is quickly becoming one of the largest agricultural sectors in the state of Montana," Tester said in a statement. "This expansion will bring new jobs to rural Montana, boost the local economy, and strengthen our state's No. 1 industry."

The facility is a big deal for more than just agriculture. Glacier County, Sammons explains, has the highest unemployment rate in the state. That helped Sammons and his wife Lisa get a $5 million loan guarantee from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, which was essential in securing a loan from First Interstate Bank for the estimated $6.5 million cost.

Pardue Grain prior to its expansion employed three people, Sammons says. It employs eight now, which will increase by 12 when construction is complete. At full capacity, Sammons believes they will employ 28 people.

The Great Falls Development Association played a big part in getting the facility going. The association also has been working on bringing food processors to the Great Falls area.

"The investment continues to prove our area's strengths for pulse processing operations that serve customers around the country," Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Association, said in a statement. "It's wonderful that following the project's completion, the new facility will offer full processing services to area pulse producers."

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