Potatoes could have a big future in Eastern Montana
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Some day soon, Dawson County may become a cog in the nation’s french fry fixation.
The jury’s still out on whether or not Glendive will be chosen as the site for a proposed potato processing plant. According to MSU Extension agent Bruce Smith, who has been working closely with the parties involved, Glendive is in competition with Williston for the coveted facility.
A decision on the plant’s location has been expected soon, but before there’s a potato plant, there needs to be potatoes, as potatoes must be grown within 100 miles of a processing plant. And Smith said it’s unlikely any will be grown in the region this year, meaning the final decision on the plant’s location will likely be delayed.
According to Smith, the potato grower involved is looking for about 1,000 irrigated acres to rent and put into potato production. He said there’s increased opportunity for that to happen since more local producers are moving from furrow irrigation to sprinkler irrigation, which is preferred for growing potatoes.
“The more sprinkler irrigation there is, the more likely there’s going to be ground for them to rent to grow potatoes,” Smith said.
The potato grower in question is interested in Eastern Montana because of its closer proximity to large Eastern markets than potato fields in Washington and Idaho, according to Smith.
Still, he doesn’t expect local producers to jump on the potato bandwagon until they witness firsthand someone having success with them.
“I’m guessing we’re about seven to eight years away from local producers growing potatoes. The local guys probably won’t pick up the banner until they see them grown successfully for four or five years,” he said. “On the other hand, if we got that factory and they see it’s successful, it could move that timeline up.”
As for the factory, Smith is among those working to convince the company involved that Glendive is a better location for it than Williston.
To Smith, of course, the choice is obvious.
“Williston is being looked at, but that’s got a lot of inherent issues right now,” he said.
The issues Smith is referring to are the effects of Williston being the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom, including snarled traffic, skyrocketing prices and a glut of available labor for anything not oil-related.
Glendive, he argues, is better-suited to host the factory because it is not suffering as pronounced effects from the oil boom and therefore has cheaper available land and a more readily available labor force than Williston. And Smith also argues that Glendive’s position on a major east-west interstate gives it a profound edge over Williston.
“Most of the french fries go out by truck, so being on the interstate’s an advantage, he said. “You factor all that in, and this is the most likely spot to put (a processing plant).”
However, Glendive needs some other things it doesn’t currently have before a potato plant is going to come to town.
“There’s a lot of ground work that has to be done before there’s a factory, and there’s a couple of million dollars of infrastructure that has to be laid before there’s a factory,” Smith said.
The “step in between” the field and the factory that Glendive needs are some climate-controlled storage warehouses for the potatoes, according to Smith.
No matter what happens with the negotiations over the current proposed factory, however, Smith is convinced that before long, Eastern Montana is going to be ground zero for an explosion of potato production.
“All the indications are that this location is ripe and this is the last, best potato frontier in the United States,” he said. “It’s going to happen someday.”
Reach Jason Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org.