CORVALLIS – Buried deep in the pages of Montana’s $9 billion general appropriations bill are the hopes of a new future for the Western Agriculture Research Center.

“If the Legislature will hold up and not start cutting HB2 real vigorously, I think we have a good chance,” said Rob Johnson of Hamilton. “Sometimes they take a broad swipe at things.”

The current funding legislation includes a line item that would eventually pay for two new researchers at the historic Corvallis site.

Johnson – a retired Ravalli County extension agent – serves on a committee that has been working closely with Montana State University officials and local legislators to help set a new direction for the center.

It’s their hope that new research will focus both on specialty crops that can be grown on small acreages and on noxious weed problems on pasturelands.

There has been a good deal of uncertainty surrounding the site since its supervisor, Mal Westcott, retired at the beginning of the year.

That marked the first time that the center was without a scientist since it was established in 1907. Six years ago, there were three scientists on duty researching subjects ranging from biocontrol of noxious weeds to better ways to grow corn.

The committee worked with local legislators and the dean of MSU’s College of Agriculture, Jeff Jacobsen, to develop a new direction for the site.

Last spring, Jacobsen met with more than 60 people in two listening sessions in Hamilton to talk about the center’s future. Jacobsen serves as director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, which oversees seven research centers across the state.

At that time, Jacobsen assured people there were no plans to close the Corvallis center, but there were budgetary challenges to hiring new scientists for the site.

Jacobsen said recently he met with local legislators and residents this past summer to talk about the center’s future.

Ravalli County’s state representatives, Nancy Ballance, Ron Ehli and Ed Greef, have been instrumental in working to secure funding for the new positions, Jacobsen said.

“They have been very, very active in an effort to supply the Montana Agricultural Research Station with the necessary funding,” he said. “Kudos to them.”

If the funding remains intact following the legislative session, Jacobsen said the state Board of Regents would need to approve the proposal.

“It’s a process,” Jacobsen said. “It takes some time, but it does appear to be moving forward quite well.”

Ehli said local residents have always wanted to ensure the research station remained viable. It was important for the community to get involved, he said.

“People were concerned that the whole thing would go away,” Ehli said. “I think this is going to turn out to be a good story for the Western Ag Research Center if we can pull it all together and get the funding in place.

“There’s a new sense of excitement within the local group,” he said. “We just need to continue to work together to make sure this thing comes together.”

Johnson is excited about the potential research that could occur at the center.

Under the proposal, one scientist would focus on working with specialty crops that would work well for the kind of intensive management people can accomplish on smaller acreages.

“We don’t have too many preconceived ideas on what those crops would be,” he said.

There is a lot of local interest about growing grapes in the area. Johnson said there are a number of varieties that have been developed in Canada that might work well here.

“There is a fair amount of interest in grapes up and down the Highway 93 corridor,” he said. “It might seem kind of far out to some people, but North Dakota has 40-some vineyards already.”

“They’ve been working on it for a while and they’re moving forward. Montana needs to do some moving too,” Johnson said.

There are other specialty crops like native berries that could be studied at the center as well.

The second position would focus on battling noxious weeds on rangelands, where annual plants like cheat grass are causing a good deal of concern.

“That scientist would look at ways of reclaiming those wornout pastures or forestlands with desirable native plants,” Johnson said.

Everyone involved knows none of this will happen overnight.

“It’s a drawn-out process to get someone hired,” Johnson said. “I think the earliest we might have someone in place is maybe November or December of next year.”

Even with that timeline, Johnson said it’s been good to see people making the effort to ensure the research center has a future.

“It just goes to show that when you get a team headed pretty much toward the same goal, things can happen,” he said.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at

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