Friday, February 15, 2013

Howdy, MATE!

It's mealtime -- do you know where your food came from? A visit to the Montana Agri-Trade Exposition (MATE) will give you some help answering this question.

MATE, which this year runs for 3 days at Billings' MetraPark on February 14-16, is designed to showcase the latest farming and ranching equipment and services. I must say I was impressed!

I actually started my tour in the Home and Health Expo part of the event. This was where some of the food producers I meet at area farmers markets were selling their wares.

I enjoyed seeing Becky of Becky's Berries again. She has some great new flavors in addition to the tried-and-true ones she's been selling for a while. From past experience I recommend Wild Huckleberry, Traffic Jam, and Road Rage Jalapeno. (I love producers who come up with such clever names!) But today I bought Chuckle Berry Jam, a combination of chokecherry juice, huckleberries, and raspberries, so mouthwateringly delicious that when I got home I just dipped my spoon in the jar and tasted it straight. Mmmm.

Linda ("The Nut Lady") of The Nut Shack, was offering her usual tasty roasted nuts. You gotta try these! They have a unique flavor to complement their sweet crunch. Linda is a real people person, so when you see her, be sure to stay a few minutes to chat and pet her [stuffed toy] squirrels.

There's always something new to try, so of course I was easily persuaded to taste a product out of Ulm, Parker's Hangover Tonic. This was designed to help a bartender mix a Bloody Mary or Caesar in 20 seconds instead of 2 minutes, maintaining consistency and saving time during those busy bar rushes. At home, you add the vodka and tomato juice. I can testify that this stuff packs a powerful punch . . . spicy! But I was assured that you just add twice as much juice to tone down the heat. It makes a nice marinade, too, straight from the bottle.

Joanne at the Watkins booth was filled with enthusiasm for the products she sells. She's been on eBay buying up old Watkins products to display along with the new ones. Below is a look at a set of 1958 spice jars with their accompanying cookbook. In the background of the photo, to the right, you can see an original jar for vanilla (and its box), one of the "Famous Three" (the others are cinnamon and pepper) that won "finest quality" awards at the Paris exposition in 1928. These are still fine products in the twenty-first century.

 While I was chatting with Joanne, Thrifty Nickel employees came by distributing free coffee and doughnuts to vendors. Everyone appreciated the gesture since hanging out for three days answering questions and selling products is tiring. So I'm just saying a little thank-you here on the vendors' behalf.

There was a whole lot more to see in the Pavilion -- cookware demonstrations, aloe lotion samples, the Wool Growers spinning -- but I'll take you right over to MATE in the Expo building, where the big boys were hanging out.

Oh, but first, just a little peek at the Ford truck display. Throughout Montana you will see rugged Ford trucks of all vintages hauling hay, taking kids to basketball games, doing all sorts of rugged chores.

Now for the big stuff: the tractors! Have you seen a modern tractor? My photos can't do their size justice. Some were bigger than apartments I've lived in.

The tractor in the photo above costs $155,000. Add a useful -- and necessary in today's ag world -- GPS system for $30,000. You can see the modern-day farmer is putting some serious investment into his business.

A display by the Montana Farmers Union showed that farmers and ranchers are vastly underpaid for their work. For example, a box of cereal costs the consumer about $5. The farmer has gotten 10 cents for his share.

In between tractors, there were piles of tools, innovative water systems, piles of animal feed -- you name it, and a farmer or rancher was examining it with interest.

And while I enjoyed asking lots of questions about strange farming equipment -- and got thorough answers from patient vendors -- I must admit my very favorite part of MATE was seeing the live animals. I wanted to buy a raffle for a horse, but forced myself away to see the llamas from Manhattan that often appear at area farmers markets along with the lovely, soft, warm products made from their luscious wool. Today they were accompanied by a guard dog that was, well, tuckered out.

I also spent time outside looking over the yearling bulls that would be sold at the Monday bull sale. I thought they looked cute, but I did recall seeing massive and intimidating ones all grown up in fields near my house, and I knew that they don't really stay cute very long. I mentioned this to Shelly Goggins of Beef Unlimited, and she laughed. She told me the bulls on her ranch do remain "cute" all their lives. She said she can't resist treating them like pets, explaining that teaching them to be gentle around people helps a whole lot when something needs to be done in their field or a vet needs to treat them.

The bulls I saw for sale will be used for breeding, but I asked a couple of ranchers how they decide which animals are kept for breeding and which are sent for slaughter. Josh and Robert proceeded to give me a lesson in "carcass data" and EPD (expected progeny difference), which is a mathematical calculation to determine how much meat an animal can produce. I was fascinated by the science involved and impressed with how complex a rancher's job truly is. Below is a photo of an EPD chart that Robert was explaining to me. You can go to to learn more.

As impressive as those figures were, my focus was still on the animals. Aren't these one-year-old bulls, well, cute?

There are a lot of things I can say about what I learned today, but I think I can sum it up best by saying: Thank you, all you farmers and ranchers and food producers!