Wyo., man’s FFA project turns into a booming business, milling gluten-free oats
Forrest Smith was a freshman FFA member in 2003 in Powell, Wyo., looking for an SAE project. It was about that time that oats were designated as gluten free and Smith, who was diagnosed with Celiac disease at the age of 2, found his SAE.
Due to his Celiac diagnosis, Smith’s diet was strict to avoid gluten-containing grains, including the volunteer wheat and rye that often contaminated oats. Wanting not much more than the chance to eat one of his grandmother’s no bake cookies, the project was a perfect fit.
Smith applied for and received a loan from the FFA Parent Support Group and began his business with a tabletop mill and a 50-pound bag of groats. He sorted through the entire bag to ensure no wheat or barley seeds were present, and he rolled the 50 pounds of oats.
With about 15 family members including his parents, diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that makes it impossible to digest gluten, Smith’s initial customers were family members. The second year, Smith’s customers included a group of Park County, Wyoming, residents with Celiac. The group gathered once a month for support and potluck suppers and were supportive customers of his gluten-free oats. Smith’s second year in business, he processed about 500 pounds of oats.
During his junior year in high school, the family attended a show in Casper, Wyo., and met a writer from California and a doctor from New York. When the writer and doctor took Smith’s oats to their respective coasts, his company, GF Harvest, took off.
At that time, his tabletop mill could roll 1 pound of oats in 15 minutes, and it could no longer keep up with the scale of the business. Smith located a mill they could use periodically and, after about 150-man hours of cleaning the equipment before each time processing the gluten-free product to avoid cross contamination, the oats could be processed quickly. It was the same time Smith’s parents were approached by a local grower who had seven acres of pure oats. The couple sold their camper to purchase the oats to meet demand,
In 2011, the Wyoming Business Council awarded a grant allowing the city of Powell to construct a building to lease back to Smith’s company. The lease is a 30-year, interest-free loan that Smith will pay back, allowing him to grow his business and provide jobs in Powell. The company also has a warehouse facility they’re leasing in the same manner. Smith said the lease revenue paid to the city can then be invested in other economic development.
The company’s mill is now running four 24-hour days per week, much more than the one day per month he said he originally anticipated.
Currently, GF Harvest employs about 14 people, including Smith’s parents, Seaton and Jill Smith, who retired to come work for him. The company ships products to Scotland, Australia, Mexico and Chile. In 2018, Smith traveled to Taiwan to begin sales arrangements there. Smith said orders are primarily internet-based, though some stores throughout Wyoming stock the various products. On Amazon, the company is ranked 11 in oatmeals, regardless of whether they contain gluten or not.
Smith said the conventional oats used are sourced within 30 miles of Powell, though organic oats are more difficult to find. He inspects planting and harvesting equipment, the trucks transporting to the mill, and knows each grower, ensuring they understand the importance of purity. He has also trained FFA students from his former high school to walk fields in search of volunteer grains that contain gluten.
Smith pays his growers a premium to compete with other companies that process gluten-free products but employ mechanical or optical separation, a method that doesn’t meet his company’s purity standards. Over the past 10 years, Smith said his products average 99.1 percent chance of testing below detectable levels of gluten.
“One of my growers has Celiac disease in his family, his wife has it and they have multiple children who have it,” he said. “So we feel very comfortable with him knowing what needs to happen.”
Smith said it is always enjoyable to go to their fields or join them for a meal, knowing the food is gluten-free and safe to eat. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.