In Powell, the miraculous happens. Despite the fact this town of 6,500 only get 6 inches of precipitation per year, it harvests sheer tons of sugar beets, barley and beans from its fertile soils. How does it do it?
Join one of Powell’s 3.5-hour agriculture tours to find out where it gets its water, how it grows its crops and raises its livestock. You’ll also learn more about how this small town has given rise to innovative companies like GF Harvest, the nation’s first natural and organic source of gluten-free oats. It may be hard to believe the visionary company got its start as Forrest Smith’s Future Farmers of America project while he was attending Powell High School.
Gluten-Free Company in Powell
When Smith was diagnosed with celiac at age 2, he and his family in Powell, Wyo., had to rethink what they ate. Moreover, they found themselves boxed into a corner in search of food sources they trusted to be gluten-free.
But when Forrest was at Powell High School, he decided to create his own gluten-free oats. It led to the creation of GF Harvest, the nation’s first natural and organic source of gluten-free oats. Today, Smith, his parents and employees sell a wide array of gluten-free packaged products from muffins to oat flour and pancake mixes. They also practice extreme quality control that includes inspecting each truck that comes on property.
Learn more about the Smith’s operation and how Powell’s other farmers and ranchers grow beans, sugar beets and barley on a 3.5-hour custom Powell Ag Tour.
“When you take a tour, you really see where your food is coming from,” says Rebekah Burns, visitor center coordinator in Powell.
Free-Range Cattle in Powell
And in Powell’s neck of the woods, you won’t find the horrific factory farming conditions captured on film in other parts of the country.
“Our cattle and livestock stay outside all year long, drinking mountain stream water and breathing in some of the cleanest air in the Lower 48,” says Burns.
Even the barley is different in Powell. It’s very golden, says Burns, attributing it to the flood irrigation and climate. Powell is home to a facility owned by Briess Malt and Ingredients Co., which sells its malt to the craft beer industry. The majority of barley grown for Briess is grown in this area and southern Montana, and its malt makes its way into beers under many labels. From its three plants in Wisconsin, Briess services 85 percent of the craft breweries in the country, including local craft breweries in Powell and Cody.
Powell’s Connection to John Wesley Powell
Beyond the rolling fields, you’ll find Powell’s downtown, which is a bit like Mayberry. Its population of 6,500 is considered mid-sized in Wyoming, which gives you a true window into just how small Wyoming’s population is. The whole state’s population of 579,315 is more akin to a midsized metropolitan area like Springfield, Mass., or Albuquerque, N.M.
As you stroll downtown on Bent Street, check out Whiskey Wrangler, started by Amanda Urlacher who moved to town in 2016. what had been her hobby of upcycling and making clothes has turned into a full-time job. Her retail location opened in June 2019, but she sells her products wholesale online, shipping to 800 boutiques.
To peruse art, head to Heartworks, which is full of artisans who live in the Bighorn Basin from Billings, Mont., to Thermopolis, Wyo., and Red Lodge, Mont., to Ten Sleep, Wyo. This store sells oil paintings, photographs, leather products, alpaca-knitted hats, socks, jewelry, stained glass and more.
Then head to Wyold West Brewing Co., for beer and food. You'll find burgers, chicken wings, avocado rolls and truffle fries, among other tasty dishes.
Powell is actually named after the famous explorer John Wesley Powell. Ironically, Powell never set foot in his namesake town. But his work related to water in the West deeply influenced Powell’s development as an agricultural and ranching town. Powell the man may be best known for his float trips down the Green and Colorado Rivers to do surveys of the West. In 1869, 150 years ago, he and his crew floated 900 miles from Green River, Wyo., to the mouth of the Virgin River in present day Lake Mead.
Part of his work included mapping watersheds of the interior West. In doing so, he raised awareness of how limited water was out West. His work contradicted the saying in the 1800s that the rain would follow the plow. To compensate for its lack of water, Powell built an extensive irrigation system in place today, with the help of the Buffalo Bill Dam in Cody, Wyo. It has helped Powell thrive in ways it wouldn’t have if the dam had never been built.
Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Powell
The town’s water helped grow vegetables in the 1940s for those imprisoned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War Two. Stop by the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center to learn more about the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were forcibly moved from Washington, Oregon and California where they lived. There's a museum, gallery and theater.
Learn more at powellchamber.org.