GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Dry pasta manufacturer Pasta Montana marked its 20th anniversary by opening a new $6.5 million processing line last month, the latest boon for Great Fall’s flourishing agriculture processing sector.
“Montana has historically taken amazing ingredients and shopped them out to urban areas, where they are further processed into ready-to-consume foods,” said C. Daniel Bateman, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Pasta Montana. “If we add value to the product in the state, before we ship it out, we can keep a lot more of that value in Montana.”
Great Falls, a once thriving industrial and supply center, has suffered like other heartland cities from waning domestic manufacturing. The Great Falls Montana Development Authority, a public-private partnership that includes a trade area of 13 counties, aims to revive the region’s prospects by promoting growth and diversification.
Some years ago, the Development Authority used state and federal funds to hire an independent consultant to help identify niches ripe for attracting investment. One was agri-processing, basically adding value to Montana’s farm and ranch products.
Indeed, food manufacturing operations seem like a natural fit for Montana’s Golden Triangle, an area in north central Montana known for growing excellent wheat. Already, agri-processing operations such as Timeless Seeds, General Mills, Grain Craft and Malteurop have set up shop there. Two years ago, GFDA put more than $8 million behind a 197-acre AgriTech Park, home to Columbia Grain and Montana Specialty Mills, as well as other major companies such as FedEx and Helena Chemical.
“It’s a triple win,” said Brett Doney, president and CEO of Great Falls Development Authority. “It opens new market opportunities for Montana farmers, which diversifies their risks and puts money in their pockets; it generates manufacturing jobs; and it gets the tax base from the capital investment in the manufacturing.”
And the knock on effect of any one new or expanded enterprise is significant, Doney said. For example, as Pasta Montana expands its workforce to keep up with increased production, so does General Mills, which mills the flour to make the pasta.
“In Cascade County we’ve grown manufacturing employment by 5.4 percent on average for each of the last 5 years, which is twice as fast as the state average of 2.7 percent, and over 5 times the national average of 0.9 percent,” Doney said.
Founded in 1997 and bought by Japanese company Nippon Flour Mills in 2000, Pasta Montana uses the high protein, high gluten durum wheat grown mostly in the Golden Triangle. The company manufactures over 70 dry pasta shapes, ranging from petite shells and orzo, known as “short goods,” to fettuccine and linguine, known as “long goods.”
Pasta Montana’s 91,000-square-foot facility, which employs 115, will increase production capacity by 28 percent, from 55 to 80 million pounds of pasta annually. The new production line will move 4,850 pounds of pasta per hour, and operate 24 hours a day, which will enable the company to hire more employees.
The increase in production is also significant for area durum growers. Pasta Montana contracts with Montana producers to plant 40,000 acres of durum each year, a number that is expected to increase by 60 percent to 64,000 acres within a few years, Bateman said.
“The expansion means there’s a larger market for Montana’s durum growers,” said Collin Watters, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee. “That’s good news, especially now, when there’s a lot of downward pressure on wheat prices.”
A surplus of wheat globally has depressed prices at the elevator, but Montana farmers have an edge, Watters said.
“Montana is outstanding in wheat; we do that really, really well. Even though it’s grown all over the world, there are just a handful of locations that grow this high quality grain,” Watters said. “It’s a vote of confidence for Montana farmers that Pasta Montana really believes in their ability to procure this top notch grain well into the future.”
The demand, even for unprocessed durum wheat, has increased. For the first time last year, Pasta Montana facilitated trade between uncontracted Montana durum producers and milling companies in Japan to get the product to the elevator. Japan imports more than 44 million bushels of Montana wheat annually, making it the industry’s best customer.
Historically, the company has focused on sales in Japan and growth in the overseas market. The company did some business domestically, mostly in Southern California as Costa Pasta and in Hawaii as Amarone pasta. This year, the company has begun to distribute its Costa Pasta label to food service outlets nationwide using food redistribution giant Dot Foods.
“Until now, if someone ordered a food service product from Pasta Montana they had to order a full truckload. Logistics and expense was a huge issue for people who wanted our product but were in a region we didn’t service,” Bateman said. “We can now get our product into ma and pa shops from Nevada to Maine, which offers a huge potential increase, but also puts us right up against our maximum production capacity.”