Heather Unverzagt

Heather Unverzagt, manager, Montana Seed Growers Association

The rise of industrialism and the development of the Montana seed industry both happened in the late 1800s.

Montana became a state in 1889, and already farmers were seeing the value of raising alfalfa as a forage crop. The crop worked well for feeding livestock, and entrepreneurs realized that farmers needed alfalfa seed.

“Montana growers needed an increase supply of seed to keep pace with demand and at the same time, growers began to recognize the need to establish standards of quality for alfalfa seed,” according to the Montana Seed Growers Association history.

During the 1912 Montana State Fair, seed producers urged the establishment of an organization to develop and administer rules and regulations around the quality of alfalfa seed grown in Montana.

On Sept. 26, 1912, the Montana Seed Growers Association was formed, and the private nonprofit organization began setting regulations and standards for the production of quality Montana seed.

It was 39 years later, in 1951, when the Montana State Legislature passed laws designating the Montana State University as the certification agency for the state, certifying all seeds and plant parts except potatoes and mint.

The responsibility of certifying all field crops except potatoes was then delegated by Montana State University to the Montana Seed Growers Association.

Today, the Montana Seed Growers Association, managed by Heather Unverzagt, maintains a close relationship with Montana State University, the faculty and staff of the Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department, the Montana Ag Experiment Station and MSU Extension.

Individual breeding programs are each headed by faculty within the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. Luther Talbert coordinates spring wheat trials, while Phil Bruckner coordinates winter wheat trials. Kevin McPhee is responsible for pulses, while Mike Giroux oversees durum, and Jamie Sherman coordinates barley. The trials are coordinated and conducted in cooperation with the MSU Ag Research Station faculty and facilities.

The Foundation Seed Program, managed by Doug Holen, is responsible for producing and distributing Foundation Seed with subsequent growing and sales of Certified Seed managed by the Montana Seed Growers Association.

The Montana State Seed Testing Lab, managed by Bridget Westfall, provides standardized testing of seed lots being sold or used by producers, seed companies and government agencies.

MSU Bozeman also maintains the Montana Seed Potato Certification Lab, managed by Nina Zidack, which certifies Montana seed potatoes as disease-free. The lab tests all occur on registered fields.

The Montana Department of Agriculture has a seed program as well. This program provides licenses to seed dealers in Montana in order to assure consumers that seed offered for sale in Montana is truthfully labeled for identity, purity and viability. Bob Ballensky is the Seed and Commodity dealer/Warehouse Program manager, located in Helena.

The seed program provides statewide regulatory services to the general public and specific ag industries. The program conducts inspections of seed facilities to assure compliance with licensing and labeling requirements, obtains random seed samples and submits them to the Montana State Seed Testing Lab.

The program then compares the results with the label to verify if the seed is within accepted tolerances and reports the results to the labeler. All seed products must have proper and accurate labeling.

In 2019, the Montana Seed Growers Association certifies seed for all crops grown in Montana, except for potatoes and mint, and coordinates 500 Certified seed producers and dealers growing crops on over 100,000 acres.

“Wheat is our bread and butter,” said Unverzagt, “followed by barley and pulse crops.”

The Montana seed industry has seen a 40,000 acre increase in production since 2007.

Under the Plant Variety Protection Act, varieties are protected.

“Montana State University, NDSU and most of the private dealers…they all put their varieties under Plant Variety Protection, and then a lot of them will collect research or royalty fees, to help create new varieties,” she said. “This protects the varieties so they can’t go as ‘common,’ so they have to be grown through our program.

“They have to grow via a Certified class of seed, so that’s increased everything that we do.”

The MSGA is run on a self-supporting basis and is solely funded by members, although housing is provided by MSU.

Montana Seed Growers Association has a full acting board of directors comprised of six grower/members from across the state representing each Experiment Station district. Mike Giroux also serves as ex-officio on the Montana Seed Growers Association board of directors.

There is also a Montana Seed Trade Association. This group is composed of fixed cleaning plant facilities and other associations who have a stake in the Montana Seed Industry. They determine the needs of the Montana Seed Growers members, coordinate their concerns, and lobby for needed changes.

All of these groups work together to bring high quality seed to farmers across Montana.