Seeds of passion: Don and Kay Keil pass down family operation and passion for sainfoin production
Upon graduating from Montana State University (MSU) in the early 1960s, Don and Kay Keil hand planted a small package of Remont Sainfoin, a newly developed product from MSU.
The small plot, seeded in the shelterbelt, led to bigger plots, then small fields and eventually much larger fields, including a large crop near East Glacier, Mont. at 6,000 feet elevation.
After 40 years of natural selection and hand harvesting seed from only the hardiest and most frost-resistant plants, Don started marketing his seed as Rocky Mountain Remont, a natural selection regrowth variety of Remont Sainfoin with longevity and frost tolerance.
Soon after, Montana Seeds, headquartered in Conrad, Mont. was born.
The current operation
Today, Don and Kay’s daughter Jennifer Schlepp and her husband Rollie Schlepp own and operate Montana Seeds, which was handed down to them following Don’s passing in 2017.
“Rollie and I grew up working on our respective family farms, went to college and returned to Conrad to begin our own farming and ranching operation,” says Jennifer. “I teach school, and Rollie manages the farm, ranch and Montana Seeds, sits on the Mountain View Co-op board and is the current vice president of Montana Farmer’s Union.”
Jennifer says her children are all grown and working in the medical field, but her and Rollie are anticipating the return of their youngest daughter.
“Our youngest plans on returning home from Seattle, Wash. this summer. She is a doctor of pediatric nursing and will work locally, join us at Montana Seeds, as well as start farming and ranching with her husband,” says Jennifer.
As far as current operations go, Jennifer says, “We are currently working with several groups of people who are interested in developing sainfoin in a variety of ways – pelletizing for horses, participating in research for sainfoin flour to be used in consumable products, reclaiming habitat in the Bitterroot Valley and increasing honey production.”
Jennifer notes her father only dealt with bulk orders when he ran the operation, so when she created Montana Seed’s website, she also added an online store to accommodate smaller orders.
“As a science teacher, I was well aware of the need to support pollinators, especially bees, as well as environmental reclamation projects for wildlife,” she says. “A 50-pound bag is much too large for people wanting to purchase seed for smaller projects, so I added the store to our website.”
Through their online expansion, Jennifer says Montana Seeds has received orders from individuals across the United States who use it for small projects or just want to give it a try.
“As of right now, we do not have a physical store. I wish I had the time to partner with places selling beekeeping equipment or honey,” says Jennifer, noting this might be a venture she takes up when she retires.
A passion for sainfoin
There is no doubt that first package of MSU’s Remount Sainfoin planted a seed of passion in the Keil family, which has been passed down through the generations.
“Sainfoin is an amazing legume,” states Jennifer. “It is non-bloating, thrives at higher elevations, is more palatable to livestock and wildlife and has high relative feed value bud through bloom.”
“Sainfoin is also naturally resistant to pests such as weevils and aphids,” she continues. “Cheatgrass and other weeds are easily and cheaply managed as sainfoin is naturally tolerant to glysophosphate. Additionally, livestock will consume the entire plant including the stems, as sainfoin is higher in sugar than alfalfa and has hollow stems.”
Jennifer notes sainfoin can be grown in a variety of harsh growing conditions, including high elevations, areas with short growing seasons and poor rocky soils.
She encourages anyone interested in utilizing the benefits of sainfoin to call the Montana Seeds office at 406-278-9951, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the online store at montanaseeds.com/store.
For more information, visit montanaseeds.com.
Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.