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Mountain States Oilseeds LLC grew its annual processing output by more than three-fold in the past decade, and founder Bill Meadows keeps working to make sure the trend continues at the American Falls, Idaho, company.
“What matters to me most is that we have been able to establish three new crops for growers in Idaho,” he said. “That helps the Idaho ag grower. We have growers now in their second generation with us. It has been the experience of a lifetime.”
Meadows, 70, grew Mountain States Oilseeds steadily from its 1977 beginnings after successfully growing flax, safflower and mustard seed on his farm and in turn showing other farmers they could follow suit. Volume has taken off since 2010 largely because Mountain States has landed more international buyers on top of strong domestic demand.
Growth continues as the company aims to enter the European market as soon as this month. But Meadows and Mountain States remain best known for expanding the oilseed market into southeastern Idaho.
“They probably buy 80 to 90 percent of all oilseeds grown out of this area and have given growers a market for a crop they otherwise would have to ship long, long distances to grow,” said Rockland-area farmer Cory Cress, an Idaho Oilseed Commission member representing southern Idaho on the three-member panel.
Kress said his family’s farm will grow about 3,000 acres of oilseeds this year compared to around 200 acres 15 years ago. “And without the markets for flax, mustard and safflower, we wouldn’t grow nearly the acreage,” he said.
Mountain States this year will process about 1 million bushels, up from around 300,000 a decade ago, Meadows said. About 100 farms in southeast and south central Idaho contract with the company to grow a combined 46,000 acres.
“Existing growers have grown more acres, and we add new growers every year,” Meadows said. “All are good rotation crops, but they are specialty crops that provide increased economic incentives for growers to grow, in addition to rotation benefits.”
Recently, more farmers have grown oilseeds for their own benefits — including that their price has been better per unit than for some other crops — rather than solely for rotations, he said.
Northern Idaho is a longstanding major producer of oilseeds, but Meadows said the south side of the state now has the lion’s share of combined mustard, flax and safflower acres.
Kress, of the oilseed commission, said southern Idaho’s rise in the market in the past couple of decades — acreage is just about equal in the north and south now, he said — is important in part because the additional acres generate more money for the industry to spend on research.
“From a commission standpoint, that allowed more research on oilseeds to be done,” Kress said.
The commission now has research projects under way at Utah State University, the University of Idaho and Brigham Young University-Idaho, funded in part by a checkoff of 10 cents per hundredweight that oilseed growers pay at the first point of sale. Checkoff dollars can fund research and marketing, but not lobbying or advocacy.
“The markets have been developing more each year, and we see the future with great potential,” Meadows said.
Much of the volume growth in the past eight years at Mountain States Oilseeds reflects increased demand internationally, helped by frequent participation in Idaho-led trade missions to other countries.
International customers now account for nearly 40 percent of the company’s mustard volume, Meadows said. On July 18, Mountain States expects to sign a contract to deliver mustard seed into Europe, he said. He would not give details except to say the prospective customer is a condiment mustard processor with holdings in the U.S. and Europe.
“Our primary emphasis the last four years has been to develop markets for mustard internationally,” he said. “Growers are willing to grow more mustard, so we have to work to provide more market for them. And 95 percent of the population in the world lives outside the U.S.”
Mountain States Oilseeds is finishing a new mustard seed cleaning facility in American Falls. Meadows said it has about three times the capacity of its predecessor, now tabbed mainly to clean flax.
Contracted growers deliver to Mountain States, which stores and cleans the oilseeds before selling to processors. Meadows, owner and chief financial adviser, expects the company’s flax and mustard seed production to increase as safflower maintains its slow, steady rise.
“We cover most of the major mustard processors in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to go into a grocery store and buy mustard without it coming from American Falls, Idaho.”
“The mustard market has some very interesting new market avenues,” Meadows said.
Some mustard contains Sinigrin, recently linked to health benefits, and mustard also is being looked at as a natural alternative to some preservatives, he said.
U.S. companies buy much of Mountain States Oilseeds’ flax as an ingredient in animal feeds and pet foods. Birdseed packagers are among buyers of safflower — some of which also goes to customers in Asia — while the company’s yellow, brown and Oriental mustard seeds go to processors in the Americas and Asia.
The company supplies dairies and egg ranches with powdered flax as a feed component, a market with growth potential tied in part to prospective health benefits to consumers of these foods, Meadows said.
“I have been able to start the business at zero, travel throughout Idaho and work with a tremendous amount of growers,” he said.