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Montana farmer also runs two-state pulse crop company

Justin Flaten studies a pod of field peas on his farm near Highwood, Mont. He says field peas give Montana farmers another option. Photo by John Brose, special to Forum News Service

GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- Justin Flaten works the phones in his fashionable office in downtown Great Falls. He seems confident and comfortable as he deals with customers.

Two hours later and 30 miles to the east, he works the gears of an aging stick-shift pickup as it bounces along a potholed country road near Highwood, Mont. He seems at ease and at home as he surveys his crops.

Flaten has carved out an unusual role in Upper Midwest agriculture.

He's president of JM Grain, which has locations in Great Falls and Garrison, N.D., and which buys and sells chick peas, lentils, feed peas, green peas, yellow peas and seed. The company name reflects the first names of Justin and his father, Marvin, the company's Garrison-based vice president.

Justin Flaten also farms in Highwood -- an accomplishment made more notable because he started farming from scratch, without help from a family member. Almost everyone familiar with modern production agriculture agrees that getting started in farming is extremely difficult without help.

Flaten doesn't hesitate when asked whether he prefers the phone and the office or the pickup and the fields. "I've always had a passion for farming," he says.

2 hats, 2 states

Flaten, 35, grew up in Montana. His father was a medical technologist for Indian Health Services, a federal agency that provides health care to Native Americans. His mother, Beverly, was an elementary school principal and now is an independent education consultant.

But Justin also had close ties to Garrison, a town of 1,500 in west-central North Dakota, where his mother's family farmed. As a boy and teen, he often helped his grandparents, Frank and Olga Bauman, and his uncle and aunt, Don and Edith Bauman, on the farm during summer.

"Justin had a passion for agriculture. He just loved farming," Marvin Flaten says.

Justin eventually earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Montana State University. He continued to work on the farm in Garrison, north of Bismarck, eventually renting land of his own and using equipment that belonged to his relatives.

In 2001, as Marvin Flaten tells it, "Justin was raising peas and couldn't find a very good market for them locally. So he found some markets to sell his peas in Canada. The neighbors caught wind of that, and they wanted him to sell his peas, too."

The company continued to grow, in part because it bought an old grain elevator in Garrison. "Again, that was Justin's doing," his father says.

Today, JM Grain has 11 employees in Garrison, where the company's processing plant is located. Justin Flaten and another employee in the Great Falls office handle sales and marketing.

Marvin Flaten, who manages the processing plant, says he and his wife sometimes help represent the company on trade trips.

"So our whole family is involved. But Justin has always been the lead," Marvin says. "He's very industrious. He's a hard worker and he always looks for opportunity in every situation. That's the mark of a real entrepreneur.

Justin Flaten, for his part, says it's his nature "to look for ways to make a buck."

Flaten travels occasionally between Garrison and Great Falls. The two are about 550 miles apart, much of it on lightly traveled roads through sparsely populated areas.

"It's a little bit of a drive. A little bit of a lonely drive," he says with a chuckle.

Flaten has a pilot's license and recently acquired a partnership in a plane in Great Falls. A one-way flight between Great Falls and Garrison takes about 2 ½ hours in a single-engine plane, as opposed to nine or 10 hours in a car.

A Montana farmer

As JM Grain grew, Flaten phased out of farming in North Dakota to concentrate on the company.

But he always knew he wanted to get back into farming, preferably in Montana.

He and his wife, Melissa, also a Montana native, "enjoy the outdoor opportunities in Montana," he says. He quickly adds that they enjoy North Dakota, as well.

Farming in Montana would provide another advantage, too. It would allow him to establish a JM Grain office there, helping the company expand outside its North Dakota base.

"So, we were looking for a farm and found one out by Highwood. We (Justin, Melissa and their three children, ages 6, 4 and 2) ended up buying it and moving to it" says Flaten, who planted his first crop in Montana in 2009.

He had no family or personal ties to the farmer from whom he bought the farm.

"This is just how it worked out," he says.

Farmers and farm group leaders across the region often stress the near impossibility of a new farmer getting started without help from an established one.

Flaten sees things a little differently.

"Yeah, I suppose it is unique, in a sense, to start farming from scratch,"

Flaten says. "But it's really not that much different from what other farmers do."

All young farmers, including ones who start with their family, face stress and financial challenges, he says.

Launching JM Grain gave him financial experience that later helped him begin farming in Montana, he says

To finance his Montana farm, "We used every tool that was out there. We financed some of the farm through the Beginning Farmer program through the FSA (federal Farm Service Agency). We worked hard to establish relationships with landowners who would lease us land," he says.

"It took time, that's for sure. But I had such a passion for it, I kept going. So it (starting farming from scratch) can be done," he says.

A family of Mountaineers

Highwood, a town of about 200, shares its name with the nearby Highwood Mountains, which are popular with hikers and campers.

The road from Highwood to the Flaten farm twists through a narrow, rugged ravine that resembles the backdrop of an old Western movie. Though the farm is only a 45-minute drive from Great Falls, population 60,000, farm and office in some ways are worlds apart.

The Flatens farm about 2,500 acres. Melissa, a stay-at-home mom, helps out occasionally on the farm.

"It's not a big farm. It's not the biggest farm in Montana by any means. It's not the best-capitalized," he says. "But we hope to keep growing."

Many farmers, especially ones just starting out, need off-farm income to help pay living expenses.

Flaten says money generated by the farm goes back into the farming operation, with income from JM Grain supporting him and his family.

"There's no way I could be doing this (farming) if I didn't have JM Grain. If I didn't, I'd have to get another job," he says.

He's trying corn

Flaten is raising winter wheat, peas, lentils, sunflowers and mustard. This year, for the first time, he planted corn, a crop that traditionally isn't grown in central Montana.

"We don't expect big yields with the corn. If we can get 50 to 80 bushels per acre, we'll be satisfied," he says.

The crops generally looked good when Agweek visited, though some fields had been hurt by hail.

(Flaten, contacted again shortly before this issue of Agweek went to press, said overall yields were solid, despite some hail damage. The still-to-be-harvested corn was holding up relatively well, and Flaten was optimistic of reaching his target of 50 to 80 bushels per acre.)

Exporter of the Year

About 90 percent of JM Grain's sales comes from overseas. The company has sold its products to about 25 countries through the years.

"Some years we sell in three or four countries, other years to 10 or 12," Flaten says.

India, the world's second most-populous country with 1.24 billion people, "is the cornerstone of the pulse industry. It has the biggest production and consumption. We do a lot of sales there," Flaten says.

What happens in India also has a heavy influence on other pulse markets around the world, he says.

Typically, JM Grain products leave Garrison in containers on a train. They're taken to export ports, particularly Seattle but sometimes Houston, Montreal and others, too, and then sent overseas.

The buyers usually are small, private companies that supply supermarkets, he says.

JM Grain was named 2011 Exporter of the Year by the North Dakota Trade Office, a nonprofit organization that works to develop trade partnerships between North Dakota businesses and the world.

"To think he (Flaten) started the company when he was still in college. It shows his forward thinking," says Larry White, international business manager with the North Dakota Trade Office.

"It's guys like him who have really helped build the pulse industry in North Dakota," White says. "He's always looking for opportunities to expand."

Flaten says domestic sales also are growing, in part because of greater interest in using U.S. pulse crops in pet food.

That reflects concern in the United States about the safety of pet treats made in China.

Rotational benefits

Pulse crops -- the name comes from the Greek word for porridge -- are grown around the world and include dry edible peas and lentils.

Definitions vary on exactly what constitutes a pulse crop. Generally, however, the term refers to legumes used for human and livestock food. High in protein, pulse crops have a growing reputation among consumers and food companies as a healthy food.

Pulse crops are eaten two or three times daily in some parts of the world, Flaten says.

Pulse crops' popularity among North Dakota and Montana farmers has risen

sharply since JM Grain was founded.

North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 320,000 acres of dry edible peas this spring. That's double the number of acres in 2003.

Montana farmers planted an estimated 425,000 acres of field peas this spring, compared with 33,000 in 2003.

Raising pulse crops in a rotation, especially with wheat and barley, can help to break up the crop disease cycle, Flaten says.

Attractive cash prices, among other benefits, add further to pulse crops' appeal, he says.

2011 was tough year

Most of North Dakota's dry edible peas are raised in the northwest part of the state, which was hammered by heavy spring rains in 2011. Farmers in the state planted only 85,000 acres of peas that year.

"It was tough in 2011," Flaten says.

Normally, JM Grain processes and sells primarily pulse crops raised in North Dakota. In 2011, however, it used a relatively high percentage of crops grown in Montana.

JM Grain benefitted from good growing conditions last year, Flaten says.

Heavy spring rains hurt planting in much of North Dakota again this year.

Fortunately for JM Grain, however, most fields were planted in the Garrison area, from which the company gets more of its products, he says.

Flaten hopes to establish a processing plant in Montana, too.

"It's something, down the road, I expect us to be doing. I think it would make sense," he says. "There are a lot of advantages in two plants in two states."

Some customers "want perfect quality, some want cheaper. Montana pulse crops might not yield as well as they do in North Dakota, but I think we can grow some exceptionally high-quality pulses here," he says.

Challenges, advice

Balancing farming and JM Grain "has been a challenge. I can't do everything on my own," he says.

"So I've tried to surround myself with a good staff at JM Grain. Having a good team has been the key to making this work," he says.

Young, would-be farmers shouldn't give up hope if they don't have relatives who farm, he says.

"A lot of farmers are nearing retirement age. Try to work on a farm. If you don't like the situation you're in, try a new one. There are opportunities out there. We were able to find one," he says.

"If you really want to farm, if you have a passion for it, keep looking."