GREAT FALLS, Mont. – As a kid growing up in Helena, Amber Brown took road trips around the state with her grandfather, who would try to name every crop he saw growing in the passing fields.
Later as a high school FFA member, Brown drew on those memories when she helped develop InFARMation, a community project to label fields in Cascade, Chouteau, and Judith Basin counties with signs. The project also has a new companion smartphone app and website.
“I thought I’d check his references,” joked Brown, now a 19-year-old elementary education major at the University of Montana, speaking of her grandfather’s crop identification hobby.
The project was developed by the Electric City FFA Chapter of Great Falls in conjunction with Central Montana Tourism and other contributors. The first InFARMation signs went up in July 2015 along a route that runs from Great Falls to Fort Benton (U.S. Highway 87) to Stanford (Montana Route 80) and back to Great Falls (U.S. Highway 87). Signs are taken down after harvest each year and new signs put up after spring seeding.
The mission: to create awareness about agriculture.
“We promote advocacy,” said Electric City FFA advisor Jodi Koterba. “Farmers and ranchers don’t have time to promote what they’re doing. We feel strongly youth need to speak positively about what people are doing.”
Koterba, 45, who is also Brown’s aunt, came up with the idea about five years ago, after seeing the crop identification signs on Interstate 90 in central Washington while driving to Seattle. Her father, Brown’s grandfather, David Hall, a former farmer and ag educator, was also on that trip.
Koterba contacted the organizers of that project at Washington State University, and, together with Central Montana Tourism, got to work creating something similar for her region.
Now an app is available to provide more information. Available through the Apple Store and Google Play, InFARMation was developed with funding from a Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development grant.
The InFARMation app has Find Near Me, geofencing and route planner options. Users view a map of crops labeled in the area with each crop screen displaying photos, facts, uses, growing seasons, production information and participating farms.
“Agriculture and tourism tie for our number one industry in Montana,” Koterba said. “More and more people want to know where their food comes from. A whole industry has emerged.”
The inFARMation project reflects an organization that’s been in transition for some time. The Future Farmers of America was founded in 1928 as a way to interest boys in farming. Renamed the National FFA Organization in 1988 to reflect the agriculture industry’s growing diversity, the group now trains students to succeed in agricultural support industries, such as financing, agri-science, ag sales, communication and veterinary medicine.
“A lot of our kids come from urban settings,” Koterba said. “Not a lot of kids have the opportunity to get back to their family farms.”
The Electric City FFA started in 2009, when most youth were many generations off the farm.
“FFA teaches career success and leadership development,” she said. “Regardless of where you’re going, these are still skills you need.”
For example, Taylor Potts, 17, a senior at Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls and Electric City FFA treasurer, spearheaded the InFARMation project last year. She put together 150 mailings to farmers and ranchers asking permission to place signs next to their fields and where they’d like them. She received responses from about 50 and is looking at the calendar for a day to post the signs in time for summer travel.
In the future, Electric City students will add an AM radio component, basically a seasonal “looping” recorded message about the InFARMation project. They also hope to place QR-coded plaques at area agriculture businesses and processors.
The ultimate goal: expand the program throughout central Montana’s thirteen counties and potentially the entire state.
“It’s to bring awareness to the traveling public so as you’re driving down the road you can be aware of the crops around you,” said Linda Brown, Brown’s mother and Koterba’s sister, who is also project manager at Helena-based Tempest Technologies, which helped develop the app.
“We all eat, we all have clothes, and we’re trying to help bring awareness about how those things are connected to ag.”
Landowners interested in participating can find out more information about the program by visiting MontanaInFARMation.com. More information on the InFARMation app can be found at http://centralmontana.com/infarmation/get_the_app/.