It was in the late 1800s when seed production was first established in Montana. Alfalfa rose to the forefront during this time as not only an excellent forage crop, but also a lucrative crop for producers to grow specifically for seed. At the 1912 Montana State Fair, a group of producers got together and advocated for the establishment of an entity that could regulate and maintain the quality of alfalfa seed production in Montana.
From that discussion, the Montana Seed Growers Association (MSGA) was established on Sep. 26, 1912. The organization went right to work setting guidelines and standards for Montana seed production and even preformed their first field inspections in 1915.
In 1951, the Montana Legislature passed a law establishing Montana State University as the entity responsible for seed certification in the state. However, the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) maintained there shall be only one organization in each state responsible for seed certification.
MSGA had been acting as that singular organization in Montana for many years, so it was decided that MSGA would enter a Memorandum of Understanding with MSU, meaning MSGA is affiliated with the university in the sense that they are housed on campus and work closely with Extension and the Plant Pathology Department, but in all other matters, MSGA remains independent.
“We are a self-supporting entity and totally governed by a board of directors. Each one of those board of directors comes from one of the six Montana Ag Experiment Station districts,” explained Heather Unverzagt, executive director of MSGA.
Since its start over 100 years ago, MSGA has worked to promote the production of certified seed, while also encouraging Montana producers to use superior seed so they can grow a high quality crops. In addition to certifying both crops and seed cleaning facilities, MSGA is also heavily involved in outreach and education.
“We do a lot of seed law education to help not only our seed dealers, but our growers, as well. We help them understand what they can and can’t sell,” Unverzagt said.
MSGA oversees the certification of all seed grown in Montana, with the exception of mint and potatoes. Membership into MSGA comes automatic with the $30 application fee associated with enrolling a crop in the program and all enrolled members are allowed to vote.
Certified seed production is a niche market, but even so, it is a strong and viable industry in Montana. Normally there is somewhere around 100,000 acres enrolled in certified seed production across the state. 2019 saw a slight down tick of certified acres with 94,331.16 acres applied for. Of those acres, spring wheat, winter wheat, barley and peas were the lion’s share.
The process of enrolling, inspecting and certifying seed has long been done traditionally via paper and mail. The process can be time consuming and somewhat lengthy, which can be stressful, especially during the period immediately after harvest when there is a big push to have the seeds cleaned, tested, tagged and back out to the producer in a timely fashion. Like all forms of agriculture, however, technology has now entered the equation for MSGA, which will make the overall process less cumbersome.
“One of the exciting things we have going this year is we finally have a new database developed, so producers can apply for certification online and our field inspectors now have tablets,” said Unverzagt.
By moving to a digital format, producers no longer have to fill out the lengthy enrollment application by hand and digital maps are clearer and easier to read. Field inspectors now have the luxury of entering their inspection data in real time and their information can become available to the grower or contractor within 24-48 hours.
“This new database has been great for us so far. For the most part, it has been fairly well embraced by our customers, so we are excited about that, but we are also excited about the potential it could have,” Unverzagt added.
Looking back over MSGA’s long standing presence in Montana’s agriculture history, it is exhilarating to think about what lies ahead. With new crops, like industrial hemp, to certify for seed and a new database to make processes timelier, MSGA continues to do their part maintaining Montana’s legacy as a producer of quality agriculture commodities.