Idaho oilseeds supplier expands his foreign markets

John O'Connell//August 8, 2018

Idaho oilseeds supplier expands his foreign markets

John O'Connell//August 8, 2018

Bill Meadows, the owner of Mountain States Oilseeds, with his diploma from a state-run course for exporters. Photo by John O’Connell.

The owner of an American Falls oilseeds supplier said he’s been significantly expanding his foreign markets recently, creating new opportunities for local farmers to diversify their crop rotations.

For growers in southern and eastern Idaho, contracts with Mountain States Oilseeds represent an opportunity to raise something other than grain, thereby ridding fields of host material for cereal diseases and opening the door for them to control weeds with a broader spectrum of herbicides.

Owner and founder Bill Meadows said his company – which supplies safflower, mustard and flax – has only been selling internationally since 2016, but foreign markets already account for 40 percent of his sales. Finding crops with a viable market that are suited for Idaho’s growing conditions, especially for high-elevation farms that rely on natural desert rainfall, can be difficult for growers.

“If a grower grows wheat or barley and keeps growing that in a mono-rotation, which there were a lot of growers that did, their root diseases become prevalent, and that lowers yield projections,” Meadows said.

He said oilseeds also have a deeper root system, improving the ability of soil to capture and retain water.

Meadows now contracts with 156 growers between Twin Falls and Ashton. He believes he’s “maxed out” demand for safflower, a crop that can thrive on Idaho’s dryland farms, at 21,000 acres. Meadows is also southern Idaho’s only mustard supplier. He has 18,000 mustard acres under contract but anticipates eventually growing to about 50,000 acres. Already, he’s selling nearly $5 million per year in mustard to foreign markets.

“We are the only country I know of in the world that irrigates mustard. That irrigation produces a stable supply, and quality,”  Meadows said, adding that Idaho’s volcanic soils and its routinely dry harvest conditions also contribute to the quality.

Flax remains a relatively small crop for the company, but Meadows envisions it will eventually surpass his mustard acreage. He can offer it to some southern markets at a freight advantage of 3 to 4 cents compared with Canada, and demand is on the rise. Flax is sold both for human consumption and as feed that lends healthy Omega 3 fatty acids to animal products.

Meadows opened Mountain States Oilseeds in 1974, marketing safflower for himself and five other area growers.

“As a grower, I wanted a chance to grow more than just wheat. Oilseeds fit the rotation,” Meadows said.

He added mustard in the 1980s. He tried other crops, such as industrial rapeseed and canola, but gave up on them, believing they didn’t offer him a competitive advantage. In 2010, Meadows gave up farming to focus on selling oilseeds.

Training programs and trade missions offered by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture have prepared Meadows to sell to a global marketplace. The low shipping rates have surprised him, he said; he can ship a container of oilseeds to Japan or Thailand more cheaply than he can send a domestic truckload across the Mississippi River.

In addition to taking exporting courses, Meadows has participated in state-sponsored trade missions to Mexico, South America, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan. Just a few weeks ago, Meadows hosted customers he met during last fall’s trip to Taiwan.

“The net result was they felt good enough about our company that they gave us three times the volume we thought they were going to give us,”
Meadows said.

In mid-July, Meadows traveled to Minnesota to meet with representatives from a German company, which agreed to buy $1.4 million worth of mustard, representing his first oilseed sales to Europe. The German company hasn’t purchased mustard from any other North American supplier and appreciates that the Mountain States product is free of any contaminants from other crops with transgenic traits, such as canola, soybeans or corn.

Rockland Valley dryland farmer Cory Kress said winter wheat has historically been his cash crop, but this season, he’s raising mostly oilseeds. Kress planted 4,000 combined acres of safflower, flax and mustard, testing to see how mustard will perform on southeast Idaho dryland fields. Right now, returns from oilseeds are as good as winter wheat, and Kress said having oilseeds in a long-term rotation improves wheat yields by 15 to 20 percent.

While Kress sometimes leaves fields fallow for a season to replenish soil moisture, he’s experimenting with planting flax in lieu of a fallow year. So far, he’s noticed no yield difference in wheat following flax compared with wheat following a fallow season.

“I think it’s critical that we have a market for these crops in order for us to be able to grow them,” Kress said.

Kress represents Southern Idaho on the Idaho Oilseeds Commission – an organization that focused on northern Idaho until recently. Assessments paid by Southern Idaho oilseed farmers are paying for a second year of Utah State University research on planting timing and herbicide options in safflower, and a first year of research at Rexburg-based Brigham Young University-Idaho into the use of growth regulators to curb the height of mustard and shift the plant’s energy toward producing seeds.