“Just add water” – from the Encore Green Environmental website.

Who would have thought that such a simple maxim could be the solution for reducing carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time dealing with an unwanted by-product of the oil fields?

A husband and wife team in Wyoming, that’s who.

Marvin Nash gives all the credit to his wife, Darlene. “She was kind of enough to let me borrow against our life insurance and start a business,” explains Marvin.

The Wyoming husband and wife team now head their own company, Encore Green Environmental (EGE), which is bringing this beautiful solution to the oil patch and to ranchers who have arid range land located near oil wells.  As the new company gets its feet on the ground they are planning to establish a headquarters in Montana — maybe in Billings.

EGE is marketing a patent-pending technology – called Conservation by Design —   that removes unwanted elements from water, which is a by-product of oil production. Given that every day in the US some 2.4 billion gallons of by-product water – often called produced water – is pumped up with oil and gas production, you can get a glimmer about the potential of being able to make that water useable – especially when one considers that most of the oil fields in western US are in arid regions where ranchers struggle to make a living because of a lack of moisture.

And it gets better. The process of cleaning the produced water and using it to irrigate arid range lands generates plant growth and at that point – as EGE’s website states – -nature’s technology takes over as the increased growth of grass and other vegetation removes carbon dioxide from the air and replaces it with oxygen. And, an added bonus, is that the range land to be irrigated is located right next to the oil well, so there is no need to pipe the water great distances or to truck it.

The water may be just as valuable as oil, and maybe more so in the future, because a potential shortage of water looms as a grave threat to the arid Rocky Mountain region, believes Nash. When discussing agriculture issues or range management, “it always comes back to water,” said Nash, who worries about what that holds for the future of his grandchildren.

In something of a great irony, if there is more water than what the rancher needs, he can store it in reservoirs for stock, wildlife, or to sell it back to the oil companies who need clean water for drilling.

This is a win, win, win.

Without this process the oil companies must haul the “produced water” away. Not only is that tough on profit margins, but it requires a massive trucking operation that burns great amounts of CO2-spewing fuels, in addition to great wear and tear on trucks and roads. It was seeing these long line of trucks hauling away wastewater every day that made Nash say to himself, “we need to quit wasting this water.”

Most of the time oil companies re-inject the water back into the ground – not a good solution – not when it is so vitally needed.

While EGE’s focus is on cleaning up a by-product for the oil companies, “We are really an ag company,” said Nash. Nash’s background has had more to do with agriculture than oil and gas and it is the expertise of agronomist and soil specialists that the company most draws upon. Experts like Neal E. Fehringer, a Certified Professional Agronomist, CCA in Billings, who has his own company, Fehringer Agricultural Consulting, Inc. Fehriger is EGE’s Director of Agronomy.

Locating the company in Billings is to return to a state in which Nash has a long history. Nash used to live in Montana and was very much involved in rodeo, working for former rodeo star and contract rodeo stock supplier, Reg Kesler.

Also, on the EGE team is John Robitaille, who has been a range manager for more than30 years, and was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry for 20 of those years. He not only understands issues of soil health, but of those who regulate it. He has helped EGE negotiate the challenging process of getting permitted and approved by the various government agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality in Wyoming, as well as in Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. EGE must get a permit to apply the water to any land.

Jeff Holder is also part of the company’s team to head communications with the media and public. He comes from the media corporate world as a script writer and it is his challenge to explain the science involved in what they are doing and to convey to the public its benefit.

The process of making the produced water useable for irrigation involves first testing to determine  what elements the soil needs. They determine its salinity, or how much clay or sand is in the soil and what it needs to be healthy soil. They then test the produced water to determine what elements need to be removed from it and what needs to be done so it matches up to what the soil needs. While it varies from site to site, in general the water is full of salts, minerals, metals and initially insoluble man-made chemicals needed.

Testing is on-going to monitor the soil conditions as well as the water content and to make adjustments if needed.

And, of course, EGE becomes the conduit between the oil company and the adjacent landowners. As the benefits to both entities are realized, it builds good relationships between the landowner and the company.

The water can be cleaned to the extent that it is potable for livestock, as well. (Until the technology is unquestionably proven, water will not be used to irrigate consumable crops.)

EGE has developed two successful pilot projects in Wyoming, applying six to eight inches of water in addition to natural rain or snowfall.

While one might be inclined to believe that environmentalists would be excited about the potential of EGE in helping to solve a serious environmental problem, they are not. Nash said that they say they believe that there could be long term negative impacts in using the water. Even though the water can be cleaned to the point of being potable, environmentalists say they worry that there may be unidentified contaminates that over time would accumulate and harm the land.

While Nash concedes that what they are doing and developing is a learning process, he is confident that they can remove any contaminate they might find and if not, the water will not be used. This is the two test step, fail-safe process of Conservation By-Design. It was, after all concern about soil health that sparked the Nashes interest.

Landon’s Legacy is joining forces with two Jersey Mike’s Subs restaurants located at 315 Main Street and 1020 Shiloh Crossing Blvd. in Billings for the 11th Annual March “Month of Giving” campaign to fund local charities. During the month of March, customers can make a donation to Landon’s Legacy at these two Jersey Mike’s restaurants.

The campaign will culminate with Jersey Mike’s “Day of Giving” on Wednesday, March 31, when local Jersey Mike’s restaurants will give 100 percent of the day’s sales – not just profit – to Landon’s Legacy. 

On Day of Giving, local Jersey Mike’s owners and operators throughout the country will donate their resources and every single dollar that comes in to more than 200 different charities including hospitals, youth organizations, food banks and more. This March, Jersey Mike’s hopes to raise a record-breaking $8 million for local charities

.Throughout March, customers can make donations through the Jersey Mike’s mobile app or onsite. On Day of Giving, Jersey Mike’s will offer free delivery through the Jersey Mike’s app.

By Nicole Rolf and Rachel Cone, Montana Farm Bureau Federation

New bills are arriving rapidly in the 2021 Montana State Legislative Session, and we’re here to bring you the highlights. We’re in the final push before transmittal deadline, which is the date when all non-revenue bills have to make their way into the second chamber. We’ll focus on two big issues in this column: meat labeling and bison bills.

House Bill 324: Generally revise certain labeling laws, sponsored by Rep. Frank Smith (D), HD 31 and Senate Bill 210: Revise laws related to country of origin labeling, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson (D), SD 11. Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposes both.

These nearly-identical bills have been introduced in both chambers. These ‘placarding bills’ both come with the same fundamental flaws. They would require grocery retailers to put a sign or ‘placard’ in the proximity of beef and pork products to indicate the origin of the product. These bills offer retailers two option to label beef and pork product: “Born, raised, and processed in the USA” or “Imported/Origin Unlabeled.” Montana ranchers are proud of the meat we raised, and we would love to see it labeled for consumers. We want transparency and a chance to distinguish our American products.

These bills simply fail to achieve that goal. When retailers receive meat to sell, it is stamped with the USDA’s approval. The USDA certifies that the carcass was processed in a USDA-inspected plant and that it is certified for wholesomeness and food safety, but it does not indicate where the animal was born or raised. These proposed state laws have no way to force the USDA to provide that information to retailers. Without the federal infrastructures and systems in place to actually trace animal’s origins from the ranch, the retailer has no way to provide that information. To require this of local retailers in our state places an unfair and unrealistic burden on our grocery stores. Without the information they need to accurately label the product, many would be forced to label the meat “Imported/origin unlabeled,” which we believe would damage consumer trust and hinder our desire for transparency.

The fact is, these are state laws attempting to dictate federal regulations. Montana Farm Bureau members support Country of Origin Labeling that is compliant with WTO requirements, but these bills do not achieve that aim. Casey Mott, a rancher in Custer, Montana, and a Montana Farm Bureau state director, testified to the Senate Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation Committee in opposition of SB 210 on Feb. 18.

“I oppose this because, like many of the proponents of this bill, I raise cattle and I have the same problems as they do – the low prices, the market concerns, the consumer concerns. But unlike them, I don’t believe that this placarding bill is going to solve our problems,” Mott said. “In fact, I’m afraid it’s going to cause a lot more problems for us,” he continued, noting conversations with grocers concerned with a lack of information and infrastructure to provide that information.

McCone County rancher Wes Jenson agreed. “I do believe this puts undue pressure on the retail industry. It’s putting a requirement on our retailers to identify the origin, which at best would be difficult and most likely impossible. This would result would be a lack of confidence in our product,” Jensen said. Instead, Jensen said he believed that if ranchers want to market their products as Montana-grown, there are abundant opportunities already available to do so at their own initiative. 

“The free market system, I believe, is what has made American great and has made our industry great,” Jensen said. “I feel very strongly that putting the burden of an industry’s issues on the shoulder of the local retailer would be unfair and detrimental. I would ask you please oppose this bill.”

 House Bill 324 was tabled in the House Agriculture Committee on Feb. 18. 

House Bill 311: Generally revise bison laws, sponsored by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (D), HD 15, proposes that a state health certificate, permit or documentation not be required for bison leaving a national park destined for an Indian reservation. House Bill 312: Generally revise bison laws, sponsored by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (D), HD 15, states that a certification from the state vet is not required if the animal is transferred to a tribal entity to quarantine.

Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposes both of these bills on the premise of disease management. Brucellosis and other zoonotic diseases are a high risk for wildlife, domestic livestock and the public. The Montana Department of Livestock mitigates the spread of this disease, and the state has worked hard to implement systems and practices to control and prevent its spread.

The Department of Livestock has an established quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park where Park bison are held and tested to ensure they are brucellosis free before they can be transferred to new locations. This quarantine and testing facility is located within the state’s brucellosis Designated Surveillance Area, which is another step to ensure potential cases are not spread or established in new parts of the state. Once the bison passes state testing and quarantine, they are prepared to be transferred to a tribal entity. House Bills 311 and 312 would remove these preventative actions, which raises considerable and reasonable concern for livestock owners.

House Bill 318: Clarify definition of bison, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Holmlund (R), HD38. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

This bill clarifies that wild bison are defined as those animals that have never been reduced to captivity, have never been subject to per capita fees and have never been owned by a person. These are important clarifications that clear up any ambiguity between wild bison and bison as livestock.

House Bill 302: Require county approval to relocate bison, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R), HD 27. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

This bill allows for additional local input before wild bison are potentially re-located. This proposal again ties back to animal health issues and provides another stop-gap to ensure animals have met the necessary health requirements before entering a new area, or even to completely stop the importation the commission determines a wild herd would not be tolerated in the area. In this case, local elected officials – county commissioners – would have a chance to weigh in on the importation of wild bison to their local jurisdiction, which our members support.

Lowell Cooke, Cooke’N Real Estate

Pending Sales Outpace New Listings in January

Same story, different month.  By my count in the Billings MLS, for areas 1-8 (Metro area-not Laurel), 157 homes went under contract in January, while there were only 138 new listings.  This means buyers are snapping up the new listings and buying the existing inventory.  The downward trend in the entire Billings MLS, which includes Red Lodge, Columbus, Bridger, Roundup, etc., reflects a 15.4% decrease in listings taken in January 2021 compared to 2020.  As of this writing, there were 111 active homes on the market in the Billings “Metro” area.  Compared to the entire Billings MLS, the number of homes on the market in January 2021 was 311, while there were 666 homes on the market January 2020, or a whopping 53% decrease.

Billings’ Low Housing Inventory-What Will It Take For It To Stabilize?

Having sold real estate through the disastrous mid 1980’s, where I can remember over 250 HUD repossessed homes on the market and a 30-40% decrease in home values, it seems odd to characterize our low housing inventory as a crisis.  It really isn’t but if you are a first-time buyer or a seller hoping to move up, it is certainly a reason to be frustrated.  I am not sure I can pinpoint a reason for the low inventory, but suffice it to say, if there is nothing to buy, sellers are going to be reluctant to sell.  This can only exacerbate the situation.  The options for a current homeowner considering selling, are to sell and try to find a place to live-say with your kids! Wouldn’t that be a table turner.  The other option would be to build.  I can see an increase in new home construction this year, which would add more existing homes to the inventory.  Problem is, completion is probably 6 months or more down the road.  Increases and shortages in building materials have strung out the completion timelines.  Since sales prices are at an all-time high, living with the kids might not be so bad!  Come on, take one for the team!

Other ways I have seen to add to the housing inventory-death, divorces and foreclosures.  Hopefully, these won’t be the answer to our shortage.

Appreciation, Average Sales Price and Closed $ Volume All Up In January

Now, for the dry stats.  In the entire Billings MLS, the Average Sales Price for homes closed in January was $310,204 compared to $274,569 last January.  The Year over Year, average sales price (average sales price of the total closed volume divided by the total number of sales in the last 12 months) has increased to $293,420 from $268,583, or $24,837 and a 9.25% appreciation rate.  Wow, 9.25% appreciation for the last 12 months!  Closed $ volume for January 2021 was up $5.6 million over last January, with roughly the same number of closed sales 181 this year to 184 last year.

The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to accept New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Cortlett, which challenges New York’s carry laws. One of the legal briefs has the backing of nearly half of the Attorneys General in the US.

In their brief, primarily written by the offices of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Missouri AG Eric Schmitt, the AGs argue that the collective histories of the 23 responding states demonstrates that “subjective-issue handgun permit regimes, such as N.Y. Penal Law §400.00, are unconstitutional because they impose state-created, subjective conditions upon the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right.”

The Amici States emphasize two reasons that this case warrants the Court’s review. First, empirical data and the States’ experience with objective- issue regimes demonstrate that these subjective-issue regimes undermine the very public-safety purposes that they purport to advance. Citizens that receive permits are significantly more law-abiding than the public at large, and studies link objective-issue regimes with decreased murder rates and no rise in other violent crimes. Public safety is also increased at the individual level when citizens carry for selfdefense and respond to a criminal attack with a firearm; these defensive gun uses leave the intended victim unharmed more frequently than any other option and almost never require firing a shot.

ONEOK, Inc. a major Bakken oil company, announced fourth quarter results:Fourth Quarter 2020 Results, Compared With Fourth Quarter 2019:

* 11% increase in operating income to $538.7 million.

* 12% increase in adjusted EBITDA to $742.0 million.

* 24% increase in Rocky Mountain region NGL raw feed throughput volumes.

* 11% increase in Rocky Mountain region natural gas volumes processed.

* $1.04 per MMBtu average fee rate in the natural gas gathering and processing segment.

Full-year 2020 Results, Compared With Full Year 2019:

* Net income of $612.8 million, including $644.9 million of noncash impairment charges.

* 6% increase in adjusted EBITDA to $2,723.7 million.

* 18% increase in Rocky Mountain region NGL raw feed throughput volumes.

* 10% decrease in operating costs.

Following a booming year in 2019, Montana’s high tech businesses held their own in 2020, according to Christina Henderson, Executive Director of Montana High Tech Business Alliance. “Companies have been able to adapt with remote work,” she said, “which provided for a fast come back” after initial shut downs. The data is still coming in regarding 2020.

In 2019, the state’s high-tech firms grew nine times faster than other sectors and generated a new record of $2.5 billion in revenues, according to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Bozeman’s Next Frontier Capital reported $150 million in venture capital investment in Montana companies in 2019, also a new record. Another survey will be conducted in 2021.

“In 2020 we identified 600 high tech firms,” said Henderson, adding that in Montana the industry pays twice the median wage at $65,000. Most of the companies are in central and western Montana  — in Bozeman, Missoula and the Flathead Valley. Henderson said, “It will be interesting to see how locations might shift due to the increase in remote work.”

There were a few high tech firms that failed to make it through the COVID business shutdowns, but “most were able to pivot quickly and rebounded.”

“For many tech companies, the shift to working from home or with new workplace safety protocols was smoother than expected. For some firms, growth continued or even accelerated,” said Henderson.

There were some noteworthy events in high tech in Montana in 2020:

 In August, Ascent Vision Technologies (AVT), a veteran-owned firm specializing in counter-drone technology and aerial surveillance systems was acquired by CACI International for $350 million. AVT employs 60 people in Montana and plans to keep its headquarters in Bozeman.

Montana’s robust biotech industry rose to meet the challenges of COVID-19, accelerating advances in virus testing, vaccine development and telemedicine. In July, Missoula-based therapeutics company Inimmune secured $22 million Series A investment from Two Bear Capital in Whitefish, in addition to over $30 million awarded in recent NIH research grants and contracts.

Henderson pointed out that “the new normal” of working from home will bring changes to the workplace culture. It’s a change that could benefit Montana and rural communities in being able to recruit new workers and entice former residents to return home bringing high paying jobs with them.

The reverse could also happen in that companies outside the state could attempt to recruit Montana workers, depleting local talent by offering pay above local market wages.

The New York Times, Bloomberg and Forbes have identified Bozeman, Missoula and Butte as potential zoom towns – zoom towns being “relatively affordable vacation destinations where populations are rising as remote workers relocate.”

A negative factor in the new trend is that “the new influx of residents is also driving up housing costs and adding to the stratifying growing pains of Montana communities.”

Henderson said, “The demand for tech talent in Montana remains strong, but there is a gap between the skills and experience of local workforce and the requirements of available roles…. Leaders in business, education and government will need to collaborate to help Montana’s workforce adapt to a tech-driven economy.”

The shift presents an opportunity for Montana companies to recruit skilled remote Times, Bloomberg and Forbes as zoom towns – relatively affordable vacation destinations where populations are rising as remote workers relocate. Montana’s outdoor amenities and relatively low cost of living have long made it attractive to tech workers, helping to fuel economic growth. But the new influx of residents is also driving up housing costs and adding to the stratifying growing pains of Montana communities. 3) Changing Career Pathways The demand for tech talent in Montana remains strong, but there is a gap between the skills and experience of local workforce and the requirements of available roles. New graduates and displaced workers are often eager to transition into tech jobs, but need support finding career pathways in the field. Leaders in business, education and government will need to collaborate to help Montana’s workforce adapt to a tech-driven economy.

Edible Arrangements, a specialty store featuring gifts and treats, announced it has signed an agreement for its second location in Montana with a franchise restaurant in Missoula. Plans are already set to open the first store in Billings, which is expected to open in March.

 The team that will manage the new store include Robert Zarbock, Azure Zarbock and Kimberly Schwindt.

 “After working many years as a franchise operator, I was looking for an opportunity to diversify my portfolio and bring a delicious new concept to my hometown,” said Robert Zarbock, a Billings native. “Edible was the perfect brand to partner with as its commitment to constant innovation and strong business model was a great opportunity from an owner’s standpoint. Also, as a huge health-nut the product is simply delicious giving consumers a way to indulge their sweet-tooth in a healthy manner. Azure, Kimberly and I are looking forward to joining the Edible team and extending the brand’s reach into Montana.”

Together the team brings a strong track record of business ownership and management experience to the table as they begin their journey with Edible. Azure and Kimberly will manage and operate the new store alongside Robert as franchise owner and investor. The team plans to hire local employees to help run the Billings Edible store. 

“We are excited that Edible is once again entering the state of Montana. Our strong business model consistently attracts experienced franchise operators like Robert and it is these partners that have helped the brand expand across the nation,” said Patricia Perry, vice president of franchise development at Edible®. “With more than 20 years of franchise experience, I am confident this dynamic team will be successful.”

Edible offers a variety of unique and inventive assortments of freshly made gifts with real fruit and gourmet chocolate. From bouquets to individual grab-and-go treats to bakery items, each product is made fresh and can be picked up in-store or delivered by Edible’s insulated trucks with contact-less delivery through its seamless e-commerce system.

AAA’s latest automated vehicle survey finds more than half –58% — of drivers want to see Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), like automatic emergency braking and lane assistance, in their next vehicle, with a majority (80%) looking for advancements to these systems. These findings signal that people are open to more sophisticated vehicle technology, which opens the road to boosting public acceptance of autonomous vehicles.

14% of drivers would be comfortable riding in a vehicle that drives itself

86% of drivers would be afraid to ride in an automated vehicle

A Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott is in the process of construction in Laurel. Managing partner of the motel is Erck Hotels of Helena, a company that manages a number of motels throughout the region. Another investor in the business, Steve Solberg, Laurel, said that the while footings for what will be a 75 –room motel are in, the contractor, Dick Anderson Construction, has halted construction because of the weather. They expect to resume construction in March and plan to be open for business about this time next year.

Solberg said that they did two studies on the feasibility of a motel in Laurel – one before and one after the COVID shutdown – and both affirmed that there is a demand for a motel in Laurel. Solberg pointed out a number of reasons, including that Laurel is at a crossroads for travelers heading east and west, north or south, and the location of Cenex, Rail Link, sports stadium, etc.

The project includes a commercial building or strip mall that will be compatible with the motel, which will include a plaza between the two.

The multi-tenant shopping strip at 311 Washington Street is expected to become home to seven or eight retail outlets, the first of which has already committed to the location. Leasing agent, Steve Zeier of Trinity Real Estate Advisors, reported that Jimmy Johns will be locating a franchise there. Jimmy Johns plans to be open by mid-summer.

Zeier said that space is available for retail stores varying from 1200 sq. feet to 3200 sq. feet. More information can be obtained by calling Trinity Real Estate Advisors at 670-6969.