Montanans experience agriculture in Colombia

Cascade resident Farrah McGregor recently returned from Colombia as part of Resource Education and Agriculture Leadership Montana program. For members of REAL Montana Class II, this was the eighth seminar in their two-year educational program.

Twenty of Montana’s emerging and established leaders were competitively selected from a pool of qualified candidates representing a wide variety of agriculture and natural resource industries across the state to take part in Class II of REAL Montana. The two-year program features eight in-state seminars; a four-day national study tour in Washington D.C.; and a 10-day international trip. Seminars feature training in natural resource development, agriculture institutions and agencies, public speaking/media, economics, state and federal policy, international trade, urban/rural relationships, water issues and other current industry topics.

“Our adventure to learn about agriculture production, infrastructure and culture in Colombia was very thought provoking,” McGregor said. “There are so many different aspects to agriculture and food production in tropical regions that I had not considered. This REAL Montana experience left me hungry to learn more about where the food we don’t grow in the US comes from.”

McGregor shared her thoughts about the experience and the impacts of trade with Colombia with Montana with the Great Falls Tribune.

Warm weather, 12 hours of daylight, every day, no winters, beautiful mountains and the amazing ability to produce cocoa, sugar, flowers and coffee REAL Montana Class II recently spent 10 days in Colombia, South America as part of their international study seminar.


We began our experience in Cali, where we traveled from the city to the country side in what we would define as crazy traffic! The traffic became the norm after a few days but was an interesting initial experience for 18 Montana residents. The two hour trip was a mix of crowded city streets, small towns and rural villages with impoverished dwellings and horse-drawn carts along the roadsides.


Our first experience was a tour of the Fedecacao field headquarters to learn about the cacao (pronounced ca-cow) industry. Fedecacao represents the approximately 55,000 cacao growers of the country and provides them services to improve their farms and expand their export markets. Here we learned that cacao trees produce a long football shaped fruit that changes from green to yellow to a dark purplish-red before it is ready to harvest. But once you cut inside you find what looks like a pomegranate on steroids. Large seeds covered in a white, slimy coating that has a sweet nectar flavor. The seeds are harvested, fermented and processed to produce cacao that is used for making chocolate. Colombian cacao is known for its high quality, little of which is exported as Colombia has a sweet tooth and consumes the majority of their own production.


Our next trip was through the mountains to into the Cauca Valley to visit the Calima hydroelectric dam, discuss power generation and the energy sector. This stop began with an interesting experience as we were greeted by armed guards and watched them survey the forested hillsides with binoculars. In the past hydroelectric dams were targeted as their destruction would cause widespread power outages along with other problems.

We heard about climate change at this facility, which was common topic at most of our tours throughout Colombia. This concern has prompted some change as both energy modeling and energy conservation are now in place to prepare for extended dry periods. The class also found out where the definition of El Nino and La Nina stemmed from: El Nino means little boy who is more destructive and causes more disasters and La Nina means little girl whom is more emotional and cries more, similar to the rainy season. As part of their culture most Colombians believe that there will always be plenty of water to both produce crops and hydro power. In both 2014 and 2015 the county was close to an energy crisis and experienced months of rolling blackouts due to less moisture, this prompted alternative energy options to come online.

Chili Peppers

Our next experience involved a spicy tour of Hugo Restrepo & Co, one of the largest suppliers of tabasco peppers for the McIlhenny…