‘Just go for it:’ Women Stepping Forward in Agriculture highlights entrepreneurial go-getters in building rural businesses

Laura Nelson
for Tri-State Livestock News
Montana Women Stepping Forward for Ag. Photos by Laura Nelson

They thought they knew everything they needed to know about barley.

After all, Mike and Linda O’Brien had grown cereal grains on his family’s farm for years. It was the same farm near Conrad, Mont., that his family had homesteaded.

But when markets were tough, Mike took a full-time engineering job off the farm and Linda, who worked part-time as a travel agent at the time, took over attending growers’ meetings in his place. At every meeting, she heard the same thing ­— think “value added.”

“But I’m not a great bread baker, and I’m allergic to hops, so we weren’t going to make beer,” Linda joked. So, she said, she started researching other uses for barley.

“They just kept saying, you have to think value-added to make it,” she said. “I thought we knew everything about barley. We had been growing it for a lot of years. But then I started research what the actual grain is like and what it has to offer.”

After two years of research and product development, RoBarr Roasted Barley was born. Linda O’Brien was one of four women who shared her entrepreneurial story on the “Women in Business” panel at the 2016 Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture conference in Billings, Mont., this September.

The biggest challenge for value-added agriculture products that go into the food and beverage category is getting a foot in the door of retailers, O’Brien said.

“A grocery store has thousands of products on their shelves, and they very rarely want to add one more that they have to write another check for just a couple cases,” she said. Working with a larger food distributor doesn’t always fit small upstarts, either. But, she said the Montana Department of Agriculture has a great set of resources for food and value-added business development resources.

Persistence is what pays in the end, she said.

“I’ve personally given out more than 5,000 samples all over the place. You just have to stick with it,” O’Brein said.

Lisa Bradley, co-founder of R. Riveter handbags, was focused on employment opportunities when she and a friend fired up a sewing machine and started experimenting with upcycled military materials on their entrepreneurial venture.

“We grew the company day by day, handbag by handbag,” she said. What started with a Kickstarter crowd-sourcing campaign that ended up on the popular TV show Shark Tank, they now employ 100 military spouses with mobile income.

“Not only do we want to create more American jobs, we want something for myself and other military spouses in the nation to contribute that we can really be proud of,” Bradley said. She said the selling point of more entrepreneurial ventures will revolve around the story behind the product.

“It’s about the why more than the what. We want a story; we want to know what’s behind that product,” Bradley said. “We’re redefining what it means to manufacture in America — people care about that. What worked for us was sharing that why first.”

Sara Helle manages the social media marketing at Duckworth wool company and Helle Rambouillet ranch. The partnership between the ranch and the wool clothing company has created a 100 percent American-made, source-verified clothing company.

“The goal is to keep manufacturing in America and provide products that you know where it comes from,” Sara said. The heartbeat of ranching is the lifeblood of Duckworth’s story, and customers are willing to pay more for it when they know it’s a product an American business is willing to work for.

“Being in agriculture, we just know that there isn’t a work/life separation. So you really have to enjoy what you do, and that shows through in the business,” Sara said. “Find enjoyment in your daily life and in the little things, especially when you’re starting your own business.”


 RoBarr Roasted Barley – Linda O’Brien, CEO

What started as a search for a way to add value to their traditional, dryland wheat and barley farm resulted in a foray into “tea” time on the high Montana plains.

For decades it sold our malt barley to beer brewing companies, sometimes at prices that didn’t cover the costs, and at their convenience. I wanted to change that, and provide a beverage that everyone could drink. Two years of experimentation resulted in a way to brew barley, the same way you would brew coffee. The results were a dark, earthy flavored beverage that was naturally caffeine free.

Best business advice: “Research your product daily. Don’t eve discount any person you meet. You never know when you will need that contact or their expertise down the road,” O’Brien said.

 Duckworth – Sara Helle, social media marketing

John Helle is the third generation on his family’s Helle Rambouillet ranch near Dillon, Montana. He’s joined by his son Evan and daughter-in-law Sara, among other family members, in raising sheep. Sara also recently opened her own interior design and event planning business, Nicholia Creek Events and Interiors.

On the ranch, John worked for years to curate the perfect genetics for high-quality, fine wool that would thrive in the Southwestern Montana mountains and turn into a high-quality fiber, Sara shared. When he serendipitously met Robert “Bernie” Bernthal, who had experience with international wool clothing companies, on the ski slopes a few years ago, an idea was hatched. In 2013, Duckworth was launched.

“Duckworth is not the wool sweater your grandma gave you every year. It’s amazingly comfortable and versatile,” Helle said. “But the most important part about Duckworth is we produce everything in America.”

Wool is the ultimate renewable resource for clothing, and American wool buyers want an American product they can be proud to support, she pointed out. But they face challenges in raising the product. Lawsuits from environmental groups have threatened their U.S. Forest Service grazing leases in recent years.

“It’s been a struggle to stay in this business and keep the ground we need,” Helle said. “But it’s worth it. We believe in what we’re doing, and we love it.”

Duckworth is a Montana source-verified wool company. We use 100 percent Helle Rambouillet merino, grown in a natural environment, raised on mountain pasture, and processed and built 100 percent in the USA. Grown in Montana, our wool fibers travel to the Carolinas (once a world powerhouse for textiles) for spinning, knitting and sewing to our strict standards, creating an impeccable final product. Resurrecting the lost art and craft of American wool is our objective. — from

Best business advice: “Go for it. If you follow what you really love to do, the money will come. In agriculture, you might not have a bunch of money to put into a new business. We put three, four years of wool into this company. That’s a huge risk. But we believe in it,” Helle said.

 R. Riveter – Lisa Bradley, co-founder

In 2007, Lisa Bradley, a small-town girl from Columbus, Mont., married Jason Bradley and the United States Army life. Over the course of the next six years, the couple enjoyed four different duty stations.

While stationed in Georgia, Bradley met a fellow army wife, and the two found a common struggle to maintain fulfilling careers while moving from duty station to duty station. With an antique sewing machine in her co-founder’s attic and some recycled Army canvas, the two founded R. Riveter.

“Like Rosie, R. Riveter represents the talent and determination of military spouses,” Bradley said. The hand-made handbag company offers home-based career opportunities to military spouses across the nation while upcycling used military materials. The co-founder appeared on the TV show Shark Tank this February, where Mark Cuban invested $100,000 to grow their business.

The R. Riveter movement captures the humble and courageous spirit of Rosie the Riveter and channels it into every American Handmade purse and handbag we produce. 

Best business advice: “Define your passion, then live it and breathe that into a product,” Badley said. “The best thing you can do is just go for it. Don’t get caught up in the business plan and all the details. That’s important, but just getting started is more important.”

 Mix Group – Janine Mix, founder & owner

Janine Mix earned her first retail experience as a 10-year-old in her mother’s Native American jewelry and pottery story in California. She was hooked, and made a career from every aspect of retail over the next 20 years. She’s studied the psychology of sales and consumer service, and with that experience, founded the Mix Group business consulting.

“I’m really passionate for women in business,” Mix said. “I love to see women in business thrive. I believe we are all given the opportunity to live out our gifts and purpose, and I want to support women who are ready to do that.”

Through her executive business consulting, Janine works with clients on an individual level to identify and reach their full business potential. She has developed and executed customized sales training programs, created innovative branding and marketing campaigns, and has helped some of her clients achieve sales growths of over 100 percent and expand into new locations nationwide.

Best business advice: “You just have to believe and adapt. Keep evolving. You can’t let the fear of change hinder what your business can do,” Mix said. “Done is better than perfect. We all have business failures and struggles. The average person has 3.5 businesses, and they say you don’t have a successful one until the ninth one. This is the heart of an entrepreneur – stop getting in your head, and just do it.” ❖