In a time of widespread financial hardship and soaring unemployment, two men on the Blackfeet Nation reservation have developed a growing business that goes against the grain. Ron Doore and Jerry Boggs, partners in Sun Roads Farmory, have developed a hydroponic technology that grows livestock feed in six days, year-round, regardless of weather. In addition to being fast, they claim that their method conserves water, is organic, and costs less than traditional growing methods. It also takes a minuscule amount of space compared to the acres needed to grow grain feed. “Jerry and I believe that what we’re doing has the potential to create a paradigm shift in the agricultural industry,” Doore said.
And they may be shifting a few more paradigms before they’re done: The company is about to launch a system for growing bio-fuels and food humans can eat.
Boggs and Doore, both enrolled members of the Blackfeet Nation, operate Sun Roads Farmory on 1,000 acres of land on the tribe’s reservation in north-central Montana, around 40 miles from Glacier National Park. They employ seven people, but expect to more than double that number by summer. Their “alternative feed systems” (AFS) provide a technologically controlled environment for growing consistently high-nutrient, 100 percent–organic green feed anywhere in the country, come rain or shine, drought or flood.
The units are available in sizes as small as a refrigerator for small farmers, or as large as an airplane hangar for big commercial farms and ranches. Costs range from $14,000 to $45,000 or more for a custom-designed system. They are easy to ship and easy to use, according to Doore. “The amount of water, lighting, heating and cooling are all pretty much dialed in for the customer, so they just have to plug their alternative feed system into a 110-volt outlet, hook up their water, put the seed in the trays and away they go.”
The units include a water tank, shelving and trays, and lighting and irrigation systems controlled by a patent-pending computer technology that controls the variables for all those elements—what they call the “brain box.” (Sun Roads hopes to patent its designs.) The user puts seeds into the trays, turns on the system, and around six days later harvests lush green “biscuits” that are four- to six-inches high, look like sod grown for lawns, and are packed with nutrition. “Animals consume all of the biscuit—the roots and the green roughage—so it minimizes waste on feed. You have a highly nutritional feed that’s high in moisture, so there’s a better hydration rate and better nutritional absorption into the blood stream,” Doore said. “It’s easier for the animals to digest.”
Because all aspects of the environment are controlled, the AFS reproduces growing conditions that allow the seeds to go from germination to the optimal nutritional value of that plant without having to battle drought, flooding, extreme temperatures and other vicissitudes of nature. Even better, the AFS requires no pesticides or fertilizers.
The system produces high-quality feed for around $80 to $90 a ton; Doore said traditional feed with the same nutritional value costs around $120 a ton. Sun Roads recommends barley seed as a base, but ranchers can use any type of seed in any combination—oats, wheat, sweet peas, soy, mung—and can fine-tune their mixture for the nutritional needs of their animals. Doore claims the biscuits are so nutritious they can improve the health of animals. “We had a lady with a gelding whose weight she could not maintain. The vet came out a number of times and said, ‘Feed him this; feed him that,’ but the gelding just couldn’t maintain the weight. She got one of our systems back in September and by December the gelding had put on 50 pounds of muscle and was just fabulous.”
She’s not their only satisfied customer. Kim and Michael Richert, who run the family-owned Open Gate Ranch in Fairfield, Montana with their sons, purchased two large AFS sprouters at $30,000 a piece recently. They have 500 beef cattle, 15 horses, some pigs and dairy cows, and will use the fodder for all of them. The animals had just had their first AFS meal, and Kim said, “They loved it. We think it’s going to be an absolute asset to our operations. Down the road, if this works as we’re anticipating, we’re going to get more systems.”
If organic seeds are used in the AFS, Doore said the resulting feed is organic. “When you buy organic seed, put it into our
system and you don’t add anything to the water and then harvest that crop six days later, why shouldn’t that be considered organic?”
Getting an organic designation from the United States Department of Agriculture will be particularly important to Sun Road because it hopes to start selling units later this year that will grow food humans can eat. The company is focusing on producing a dishwasher-size residential model that will produce enough salad greens, tomatoes and other vegetables for a family of four-to-six people, year-round. The restaurant model will be like a big double-door refrigerator that would sit in a restaurant kitchen alongside other appliances. Restaurants will be able to sprout all the seeds they need for daily salads and advertise to their customers that their vegetables were harvested that day or even that hour. And it can all be organic, Doore points out. “If you’re using organic seeds and not adding anything to the water, then technically you’re giving your customers an organically raised crop.
“We get calls every day for the human consumption side of it, people saying, ‘When can we get one?’ It’s exciting to see the market embrace our ideas about the ways we grow our crops for our animals and ourselves on a local basis rather than shipping food across the country with the cost of fuel and the loss of nutritional value.”
The company is also developing a system for the bio-fuel industry. “We’ve got some testing and a little bit of engineering to do,” Doore said, “but we’re working on an automated process that would allow ethanol producers to grow their feedstock for ethanol right at their facility, which would eliminate trucking in the massive amount of corn and other feedstock they currently use for ethanol production.”
Sun Roads’ entry into bio-fuels coincides with the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil by creating alternative energy sources and promoting economic development and job creation. At the end of January, the White House announced more than $16 million in new investments in 33 states to support the production and usage of advanced bio-fuels. “The Obama administration is working aggressively to bring greater energy independence to all of America by promoting the production of renewable energy in rural communities,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “This funding will help the nation’s advanced bio-fuel industry produce more fuel from sustainable rural resources, and in doing so create jobs, a new revenue stream for agriculture producers and stimulate rural economies across the nation.”
Sun Roads Farmory believes it has just what the people in D.C. want. It will build custom-designed systems for the massive crop production that ethanol producers will require. “That’s the beauty of our technology. We build the portable containers on the rez, load them onto semis and can ship them all over. For large-scale operations—whether it’s for livestock or ethanol—we can custom-build buildings that suit the needs of the customer.”
And there’s yet another pleasing aspect here: Doore and Boggs are proud to have a Native-owned company that’s spearheading a new industry in which there is little competition. “Usually it’s the other way around,” Doore said with a laugh. “Usually folks on the rez find out about things last, but here we’ve kind of turned the tables and it is launching here first.”
Almost all of Sun Roads’ employees are Native Americans and Doore said the company hopes to create more jobs in the next few months. “Unemployment on the Blackfeet reservation has been above 70 percent for a long time and we are planning on having up to 16 or 20 employees by midsummer, possibly more. We’re excited about being able to provide some employment here.”
The company would also like to get other tribes involved in this burgeoning new technology. After an article about Sun Roads was published in Equine Journal recently, Doore said the company was swamped with calls from tribes on the East Coast. “It would be fabulous if we had another tribal nation or business manufacturing these units for us for the East Coast market, so we’re exploring those opportunities.”
Doore, who is 38, has been “dabbling in hydroponics” for 18 years, but his interest goes back much farther. “I had a fascination with it when I was young. My mother, being a teacher, heavily influenced me on the science side of things. And living on a farm and ranch here, I always looked at our machinery that would sit idle in the winter months, and I kept thinking there’s got to be a better way to utilize our equipment year-round and produce quality feed, for animals or for human consumption, so I started investigating hydroponics.”
Doore and Boggs began exploring different hydroponic technologies both in the U.S. and abroad about nine years ago. Some of the original technology for their growing system was developed in Australia by a company called Fodder Solutions, whose products were distributed by Sun Roads Farmory, but for the AFS, Sun Roads developed its own designs and technology. After growing livestock feed traditionally in fields for more than 10 years, Sun Roads Farmory now appears to be on the verge of “sudden” success. “It’s been a long time coming,” Doore said. “Some people who’ve known us all our lives come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Ron, that’s a really neat idea. Did you just come up with that last year?’ and I think, If you only knew…”