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Gord Pearse, general manager of Bruce Seed Farm in Townsend, Mont., stands in a field of basin wildrye on July 29, 2017. Bruce Seed Farm grows 25 varieties for seed. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Seeds flourish in Broadwater County

TOWNSEND, Mont. — Gord Pearse grew up in the seed business. His father was a seed grower in Canada, and he eventually ended up in Townsend, Mont., as general manager of Bruce Seed Farm.

"I've always believed that agriculture is the most important industry in the world. And seed is the start of it. So I'm pretty proud of what we do," he says.

When it comes to growing seeds "there's a lot more to it than meets the eye," he says. Some species are easier than others, and there are rules to follow in terms of seed quality.

"There's a lot of forethought that goes into it before you pick up a bag of seed," he says.

A field of basin wildrye just beyond the company headquarters was planted in the 1980s. The 7-foot grass goes into lower wetland areas for revegetation and wildlife.

"We straight cut this field, about this high," Pearse says, indicating to about his waist, a few feet below the seed-heavy heads. "And you can see way out ahead of you the deer walking through the field."

In a field of lodorm green needlegrass, a native species common throughout the Dakotas and the eastern half of Montana, Pearse points out how parts of the field are laying down. That's a good thing for that crop, a protective measure that keeps the heads from breaking during the often strong winds that blow through the valley, he explains.

Bruce Seed Farms grows 25 varieties of seeds. While the bulk of the seeds produced there stays within the borders of Montana, some goes to neighboring states and Canada, as well as states as far as Texas, as part of seed mixes done on the wholesale level through relationships with other seed companies, Pearse says. Much of it is pedigreed seed, and at least 85 percent of the production is certified, he says.

"We grow, process and market primarily forage seed crops, including a lot of native species but also agricultural perennial species as well, grasses and legumes," he explains.

Allison Kosto, Montana State University Extension Agent for Broadwater County, says Bruce Seed Farm is a unique operation, growing seeds for some varieties that aren't grown for seed anywhere else.

"They definitely have some unique things, things I'd never even heard of," she says.

Unique, too, are the conditions across Broadwater County, where Townsend is the county seat, that allow seeds and seed potatoes to flourish there.

The town's website says Broadwater County is "roughly defined by the Big Belt Mountains to the east and north and the Elkhorn Mountains to the west." Pearse says the area is the "first valley of the true Missouri River" and thus provides ample irrigation to go along with the low-humidity climate necessary for seed production.

Kosto says the irrigation, of course, is vital to the production of seeds. But also important is the variety of soil types, ranging from clay along the river to sandy, gravelly soil in the foothills, which means a variety of crops can flourish.

The arid climate helps ward off diseases, which Kosto explains has helped seed potato growers especially. Diseases that take off elsewhere haven't been a problem in Broadwater County.

"Our potato producers have some of the cleanest facilities, trucks and equipment, because they know it's disease free," she says.

At Bruce Seed Farm, Pearse expects "a pretty good crop." That's a relief after last year, when a hail storm wiped out many fields.

But every year, there are "some great crops and some disappointments," he says. That goes with growing that number of varieties.

"There's no way to get a good crop all the time," Pearse says.

They fight disease, like leaf rust, along with various insects and weeds. But one thing they won't have to fight, thanks to a new law passed by the Montana Legislature, is local regulations.

Pearse says Senate Bill 155 was a proactive effort to stop Montana from dealing with issues that have cropped up in states like Colorado and California, where local governments have prohibited the use of certain crops or varieties.

Under the new law, only the Montana Department of Agriculture will be able to regulate seeds.

Pearse testified in favor of the bill as a representative of the Montana Seed Trade Association. He says it's important for landowners to maintain their ability to make decisions for their land and that uninformed opinions do not dictate what can be grown. Much of the problem in other states has cropped up around biotechnology issues, and Bruce Seed Farm grows Roundup Ready alfalfa. That technology is important for landowners in controlling certain weeds, and landowners should be able to make those decisions without the input of local government, he says.

"There is place for that technology in Montana agriculture, in every state's agriculture," he says. "I'm all about options and choice."

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