Inside a sterile lab on the Lake Seed Inc. potato farm a few miles north of Ronan, Jan Lake and a half dozen workers are cloning and preparing mint plants and potato seeds that will be used in products all over the world.
The 300,000 mint plugs they produce every year will be planted in farms across the country and the oil will be used in products like chewing gum. The 80,000 potato plants will eventually be sown in the surrounding Mission Valley farmland, and when they’re harvested they’ll be used as seed to grow other potatoes for use in chips, french fries and other products.
“We’re probably the largest provider of mint,” Lake explained. “It’s been a really fun thing to help that industry.”
On Tuesday, Lake and her family members and staff hosted Gov. Greg Gianforte for a tour of the facilities. Gianforte this week declared the week of March 22 as Montana Agriculture Week and March 23 as Agriculture Day in Montana.
There are more than 27,000 farms and ranches across the state, Gianforte said.
“This is National Ag Day, and we just want to honor the ag industry,” Gianforte told the Missoulian. “We’re here at Lake Farms. We got to see the seed operation. Here we are loading potatoes that come out of the field. This family’s been here 85 years on this ground, producing. And ag is our number one industry and it’s appropriate that we celebrate it and that’s why I came here today.”
The third generation of the Lake family is running the farm now, and the fourth generation is working on a day-to-day basis as well. Jan Lake said she employs nine “cutters” and 25-30 “transplanters.”
“I’m a tissue culture technician,” she explained, wearing sterile coverings on her hair and boots. “We’re cloning identical plants in sterile conditions.”
Gianforte asked her if mint was a “cash crop” for the farm. Lake responded that the pandemic slowed the sales of products that use mint oil.
“What has happened with the mint portion this year is nobody went to the grocery store,” she said. “Nobody stood in line, threw that candy bar in the cart, threw that gum in the cart. We’re all praying we get back to normal. We really really are. It needs to in a lot of ways.”
Gianforte said one of the big issues for agricultural producers in Montana is the business equipment tax.
“The big thing in the current (legislative) session is this adjustment in the business equipment tax,” he said. “This would take 1,500 farms and ranches off of the business equipment tax rolls. That makes it easier to invest in equipment and upgrade their operations.”
House Bill 303, carried by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R-Fort Benton), would raise the exemption for the state’s business equipment tax from $100,000 to $200,000.
About 8,000 businesses in Montana pay the tax now, and the bill would mean 4,000 fewer businesses would pay it, according to reporter Holly Michels of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau.
The bill is opposed by the Montana Budget and Policy Center. During a hearing on the bill in February, the Center’s senior fiscal policy analyst, Rose Bender, said that the bill would put more of a burden on residential property taxpayers because the loss of revenue would be backfilled from the state’s general fund.
The bill is still making its way through the Legislature.
On Tuesday, Gianforte said he’d also like to work to help producers fetch premium prices for their products.
“It’s also important, the direction I’ve given the Montana Department of Agriculture, is to work to preserve the Montana brand through the supply chain,” he said. “We produce the best beef in the world, the best potatoes, and yet consumers don’t always know where their food came from. It’s important that we help them capture the value for the work that they’re doing.”
Jan Lake said her family started with potatoes, but realized that there aren’t any diseases that can cross between mint and potatoes.
“There’s no disease that would cause disease in one or the other, so they work really well, they integrate into the system really well,” she said. “We’re gettin’ on to our fourth generation. So our daughters are here. It started with my husband Dan’s grandfather, and now we’re carrying it down to our fourth generation.”
She’s proud of the work they do, and said other industries could utilize the techniques they’ve perfected.
“There’s a lot of industries that could benefit from this,” she said.