CORVALLIS, Mont. (AP) — The past year was tough everywhere, but with the price of milk hitting historic lows you could make a case that the dairy industry was hit as hard as any.

For folks at Huls Dairy in Corvallis, home of the state's only methane digester, that grim backdrop only makes its recognition as a top small business by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shine brighter.

Dan Huls thinks it says as much about community as it does about his family's farm, since local recognition — the Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce nominated the fifth-generation farm — got the ball rolling on Huls Dairy's selection by the national chamber as one of 75 winners of the Blue Ribbon Small Business Award.

"We wouldn't have made it through the last year if had not been for businesses and individuals in this valley and throughout the state who believed in us," Huls said. "It was that tough. And we had a tremendous amount of support from people who helped us in numerous ways. Those folks, and they know who they are, deserve a whole lot of credit."

Bob Rummel, chair of the Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce's agribusiness committee, is one of the folks who put Huls Dairy on track for the award, which puts it in the running to be one of seven finalists and ultimately chosen as small business of the year, and a $10,000 prize.

Rummel said, given that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce jury is looking for innovation, Huls is a perfect fit for the award.

"They're very green, reduced their emissions, and even their byproducts they are selling, so they're very efficient and that's what this award is geared toward," Rummel said. "It's a neat company and a neat family."

Huls said he is humbled by the whole notion that a small family dairy farm that has been producing milk for more than 100 years in the Bitterroot Valley would be on a list that includes companies offering defense and law enforcement expertise, construction and architectural services, marketing strategies and software consulting.

But Rummel would point out that Huls isn't a typical dairy farm.

The farm's push for greater efficiency reached a peak in January 2009, when its $1.2 million methane digester started running.

The two-tank, 60,000 gallon capacity digester — the only one of its kind in Montana — is designed to capture the methane, a greenhouse gas, emitted by cow manure. The captured gas is used to power a generator, which in turn lowers the farm's use of grid electricity.

The remaining solid and liquid wastes are then sold as fertilizer — Huls' "Afterburner Boost" — is available locally and throughout western Montana.

But often unforeseen challenges come with innovation.

Huls said there have been glitches in the system, requiring more hands-on work than they had hoped, but the kinks in the system will eventually get worked out.

"It's been challenging ... and more work than we would have wanted," he said. "But at the moment, it's working pretty well."

Of course, there was the additional challenge that all this new, and expensive, technology was put into operation exactly when the bottom dropped out of the dairy market.

Huls said in 2009 the relative price for milk got as low as it's ever been.

For a time, farmers in western Montana were earning slightly more than $10 for 100 pounds of milk. Adjusted for inflation, that comes in even below the 99 cents that Depression-era farmers earned.

"It's been very difficult in the dairy world," Huls said. "But it's been difficult in the entire economy and the dairy is just one part of that."

If the 13-employee, 600-acre, 800-head farm in Corvallis were to win the U.S. Chamber of Commerce top small business honor in May, the $10,000 prize might heal some of the wounds inflicted over the past year.

 

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.