Amazing Grains! Montana Grain Growers Use VAPG Funds from USDA to Develop Gluten-Free Flour

By Barr, William W. | Rural Cooperatives, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Amazing Grains! Montana Grain Growers Use VAPG Funds from USDA to Develop Gluten-Free Flour


Barr, William W., Rural Cooperatives


Look before you leap. But not too long, because he who hesitates is lost.

Those two somewhat contradictory adages have special meaning to anyone who has ever launched a new business venture. Make sure you test the waters before you jump in, we are advised on one hand. But wait too long for an opportunity in a business market as dynamic as in the United Sates, and you may see opportunity snatched away by someone who was more aggressive and/or better capitalized. The trick, of course, is to find the right balance of caution and courage.

The development of Amazing Grains Grower Cooperative represents such an effort. Its producer members began the journey as a search for a market for processed, millable seed--a market that would provide the most value-added options for the lowest producer investment. Helping them along on this journey was a Value-Added Producer Grant from USDA Rural Development, which provided working capital for a number of the co-op's efforts.

Amazing Grains is a grower-owned cooperative that produces, processes, packages, markets and distributes a gluten-free flour made from Indian rice grass. The cooperative also supplies state-certified native grass seed for private and federal land reclamation projects. In addition to the USDA funding, a wide range of public and private partners contributed technical and financial assistance to guide this group of growers.

Dietary staple for Native Americans

Indian rice grass is a native grass that served as a dietary staple of Native Americans for many centuries before the introduction of maize. The grass was produced in limited quantity in Montana for land reclamation projects, but volatile price swings and an unreliable market kept the producer base small.

In the 1980s, Dr. David Sands, a research scientist and professor in the Montana State University Department of Agriculture in Bozeman, determined that Indian rice grass had value-added potential for producers.

The flour of the rice grass is gluten free and--when used to make a variety of bakery products--it has fine flavor and is high in fiber and protein.

Alternative gluten-free flours--such as those made from rice, bean, potato and corn--do not exhibit these combined characteristics. Improved nutrition and better tasting, gluten-free products are marketed under the co-op's trade name: Montina [TM]. These products are of interest to those who suffer from gluten intolerance, or Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic auto-immune disorder which can result in overwhelming fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, malnutrition and eventual death. While there is no cure, removal of foods from the diet that contain gluten can successfully control the effects.

The challenge for producers of Indian rice grass was to develop a solid, reliable commodity-producer base to process high-quality seed into a nutritious, good tasting, quality product which is reliably gluten free. The assured gluten-free reliability is critical to those inflicted with Celiac, for the market is very "purity conscious." The co-op is concentrating on the European and North American markets.

Indian rice grass is a "bunch grass," used for wild-land range forage. It grows throughout the intermountain West, is drought resistant and survives well in cold weather. For Indian rice grass to succeed as a reclamation seed and as a base for gluten-free flour, it has to be price stable. It must be available in sufficient quantities to withstand competition from alternative species and cannot be priced prohibitively high. Processing must produce a reliable, consistent gluten-free product.

Crop scarce at first

At the start of this project, there was a scarcity of cultivated Indian rice grass and producers willing, and able, to produce it. Project development was initiated under the guidance of the Montana State University (MSU) research team, aided by a small Indian rice grass producer team in the Malta area of Montana. …

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