Part 1 of Homegrown explored the challenges and opportunities of small-scale food production in Montana. Part 2 looks at some Montana communities that are building sustainability out of collaboration.
RONAN — Jan Tusick used to sell her lamb and vegetables from a roadside farm stand on Highway 93. The year was 1995, and the then-39-year-old organic farmer spent one day a week at the stand, which she shared with other area farmers as part of the Mission Valley Organic Growers Cooperative. She also worked as a school clerk and a program assistant for an investment firm, and spent evenings and weekends tending the flock and 80 acres she and her husband, Will, still cultivate near Pablo National Wildlife Refuge 25 years later.
Figuring there had to be a better way to sell their goods, Tusick approached the local economic development nonprofit, Lake County Community Development Corporation. She wound up volunteering there, and in 1998 led a community assessment as part of the Montana Food Systems Initiative, run by AERO, a statewide sustainability organization.
“Basically, what the community and the growers said is, ‘We want infrastructure, we want refrigerators, we want to be able to value-add our products,’ and so that’s what we pursued,” Tusick said. “They wanted a place they could process their vegetables. They wanted a place they could chop and dice, because you can’t do that on the farm. And the refrigeration was so they could store their vegetables.”
That same year, with a building provided at no cost by the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority and funding from the USDA Rural Cooperative Development Program, she founded what is now the primary pillar of local food processing in Montana: the nonprofit Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center.
Unlike other similar facilities around the U.S., Mission Mountain isn’t near a large city. It’s located 12 miles south of Flathead Lake on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Ronan, population 2,088. Without a large pool of local food entrepreneurs or existing businesses using the space, Tusick funded the center’s early days with government grants, which took it only so far.
“The first 10 years were rough,” she said, explaining that the center needed reliable revenue streams to keep afloat.
Today, some of that revenue comes from renting the space to entrepreneurs including Silk Road spice blends and Fat Robin Orchard and Farm, which uses the space to make dried and frozen cherries and a cherry reduction sauce. Other revenue streams include consulting for private food businesses as a state-funded food and agriculture center; selling the Montana Lentil Burger, a branded product made in-house; and processing and packing food for clients including the Western Montana Growers Co-op, which Mission Mountain helped establish soon after its own founding.
Tusick also learned early on that the enterprise center needs to process at least 600 pounds of product at a time to make a production run worthwhile. She now recommends that any new similar centers be located near an urban center and be built for capacity.
That way, she said, “we can compete and be successful.”
Last year Mission Mountain washed, sliced and packaged 30,000 pounds of food for the growers co-op, which distributes Montana products to individuals, grocery stores, restaurants and institutions across Montana and into northern Idaho and eastern Washington. When institutional demand dropped during the recent coronavirus shutdowns, the two organizations received a grant from the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program. With additional funding from the Montana Farmers Union and the Headwaters Foundation, Tusick and her staff had packed 1,713 9-pound boxes full of Montana- and Pacific Northwest-grown produce as of August 19, which the growers co-op distributed to organizations helping people in need in Kalispell and Missoula, and on the Flathead Reservation. Tusick estimated the program will distribute 6,400 boxes by the end of November.
On the ladder of Montana food processors, small private enterprises are the first rung, and community-based facilities like Mission Mountain are on the second step. The difference is that on the second tier, the “business model is as much about building community as it is about building a strong business,” said food systems analyst Ken Meter.
Higher up the ladder are mid-size processors like Montana Gluten Free, Timeless Seeds and Montana Flour and Grain, which export the majority of their products to national and international markets.
“You have to reach a certain scale before it is economically feasible,” said David Oien, founding and managing partner of Timeless Seeds, a lentil processor in Ulm. With 25 employees and 45 farmers, Timeless Seeds produces so much it could never keep all its products in-state. Even so, Oien called the company a “speck on the windshield” compared to the big agricultural companies at the top of the processor ladder, like the Japanese-owned Columbia Grain or General Mills, both of which operate processors in Montana.
Together, the lower rungs are key to keeping locally grown food in Montana, so it doesn’t have to be shipped elsewhere to be processed or packaged before returning for consumption. And keeping Montana-grown food in Montana has been in higher demand since the pandemic interrupted national food systems. But without economies of scale and the government subsidies afforded to big ag, it’s hard to survive near the bottom of the ladder, and as a result, local food is often expensive.
“We want to feed Montana, [but] right now local food is not necessarily that affordable,” Tusick said. “That’s been a tension for years — how do we get local food more affordable?”
As she’s shown through Mission Mountain’s partnerships — whether that’s renting the facility to private clients, collaborating with the growers co-op, or expanding its farm-to-institution programming — partnering with other businesses, nonprofits and institutions helps reduce costs for all parties, which trickles down to consumers and ultimately supports the entire system.
“Twenty years ago, we started with government money, and we started hitting the wall,” Tusick said. “This place almost closed down, because we needed to go back and forge relationships with community partners. That helped us reestablish a foundation that we could build upon and be sustainable.”
One homegrown Livingston group is forging its own partnerships in an effort to make local food available to everyone in the community, with food processing at the core of its work.
The Livingston Food Resource Center, first founded as a food pantry in 2006 and re-established in its current form in 2015, aims to treat hunger through its root cause of poverty. Instead of purchasing the cheapest food available and handing it out through the usual food pantry model, the center buys most of its vegetables, meat, grains and dairy from Montana farmers, supporting jobs and client health at the same time, according to Director Michael McCormick.
When grocery aisles were bare this spring, McCormick had no problem sourcing food through his regular local channels. For the sandwich bread the resource center bakes for its clients and other Montana pantries, he bought 2,000-pound loads of organically grown flour from Montana Flour and Grains in Fort Benton. Western Montana Growers Co-op continued delivering regular truckloads of produce, and McCormick bought about 1,500 pounds of carrots and beets out of a Rockport Hutterite Colony root cellar near Choteau.
This fall, staff will wash, blanch, chop, slice, shred, vacuum pack and freeze several thousand pounds of Montana vegetables in the center’s 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen, and then distribute them to its clients this winter, or cook them into meals for the community kitchen.
“Come January or February, if we want to make a cauldron of vegetable soup, we can go to the freezer and pull out veggies we bought last summer from local farmers and processed,” McCormick said. “That does a couple of things. One, it keeps our food acquisition dollars in our local agricultural economy and helps support small family farms that are always struggling. [Two], it distributes [healthy] food to people who, based on all the studies and research we’ve done, are generally wrestling with many chronic illnesses, much of which is brought on by poor diet and nutrition.”
Donations fund 85% of the resource center’s food purchases, with other revenue generated by renting the space to food entrepreneurs and a new bakery selling baguettes and artisanal loaves to the public. The center also sells vegetables and bread to the Livingston hospital, produce to the local school district, and bread to Sage Lodge, and caters lunches for the Rotary Club and other local groups in its on-site meeting room.
Looking forward, McCormick is researching whether it would work to expand the produce processing facility and start a branded line of organic Montana vegetables. Like the bakery, the vegetable line would be a hybrid model with the center’s clients and other pantries receiving produce for free, while vegetables sold retail would generate revenue.
“I spent 40 years in bottom-line-driven for-profit corporations,” McCormick said. “That’s kind of how I look at nonprofits and how they should be managed. … I’m constantly looking for ways to continue to leverage our role.”
Above Mission Mountain and Livingston Food Enterprise Center on the ladder, there’s a third rung that exists in the space between direct-to-consumer and commodity markets. These are the mid-size farms and food enterprises that long made up the heart of American agriculture, but that largely disappeared between World War II and the 1980s with the rise of industrial agriculture and cheap food.
It’s a concept known as “agriculture of the middle,” and rebuilding it could make food systems more resilient, said Tommy Bass, a food systems researcher and extension specialist at Montana State University.
“It’s like [redundancy in] a power grid, but it’s a food grid — they don’t get knocked out,” Bass said. In the same way that multiple generator stations and transmission lines make a power grid less vulnerable to a single tree falling on a power line, multiple smaller and mid-size producers, processors, distributors and retailers strengthen a food system.
In Great Falls, Montana Eggs is a third rung example made possible by leveraged partnerships. Owned by a number of the state’s Hutterite colonies, the $9 million, 58,000-square-foot egg grading facility opened in 2017 and is operated by Washington-based egg producer and distributor Wilcox Family Farms.
“One colony couldn’t have done it. Two colonies couldn’t have done it. It wouldn’t have been cost-efficient enough,” said Will Hofer, head gardener at the Rockport Colony, explaining that the plant is the only venture so many colonies are partnered on in Montana. “They needed a lot of eggs, and the more colonies you got together, the more eggs you could move through, and the sooner it would be paid off.”
The facility currently processes approximately 1.2 million eggs a day from 38 Hutterite colonies. Wilcox sells and distributes those eggs to all of the Costcos in Montana, as well as to Costcos and other retail outlets around the Pacific Northwest. This partnership was the key to success, because Wilcox had distribution and sales networks already built in, said Claude Smith, general manager of Montana Eggs.
Smith has 39 years of experience in the industry, including working as a food and process specialist for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, a consultant for many of the entities mentioned in this story, and in operations for Pillsbury. He emphasized that while addressing the lack of small processors is important, it’s only part of what’s needed to keep more locally grown food in Montana.
To do that, he and many others interviewed for this story said, an entire ecosystem of producers, processors, distributors, retailers and customers needs to expand together. This could look like Mission Mountain and the growers co-op developing symbiotically, like the state Office of Public Instruction partnering with MSU and others on the Montana Farm to School program, or the Bozeman restaurant Montana Ale Works helping Gallatin Valley Botanical purchase a root vegetable harvester and washer, a greenhouse and land.
New efforts to add processing capacity around the state aim to put this collaborative, systems-level approach into practice.
Prospera Business Network, a Bozeman-based economic development nonprofit (disclosure: the reporter is a Prospera member), is launching a feasibility study in September for a center similar to Mission Mountain. One big question, said Prospera Executive Director Paul Reichert, is whether there are enough farmers, ranchers and food entrepreneurs in the surrounding area to support a facility, and if so, what resources they would need.
And in Choteau, flour miller Judy Cornell spent the summer removing tractor parts, welding equipment, tools and supplies from a friend’s unused 70-year-old farm shop, where she’ll expand capacity for her business, Conservation Grains. Since 2018, Cornell has sold locally grown flour to bakeries, wholesale distributors, grocers and individuals around Montana, including the Livingston Food Resource Center, as well as nationally through an online store.
While the business is still small, Cornell said sales have increased by 400% during the pandemic. Gluten Free Montana recently gave her a grain cleaner, and she plans to buy a grain mixer, conveyor belt and bagger with help from a $10,000 Montana Agricultural Adaptability Program grant. Her goal is to partner with others around the state and region to establish small community mills for which she would source, wash and bag grains.
Montanans have been reconstructing local food systems since the 1980s, said Meter, the food systems analyst.
“Montana, to survive and be resilient, needs a food system that is really homegrown, and it’s very difficult to do that because wealth has been extracted so systematically out of Montana for so many decades,” said Meter, who has helped establish community-based food systems in six regions of Montana and 40 states.
“How does Montana build the food system it deserves that pays people well and has healthy outcomes and takes care of the soil and reduces inequality and increases justice? Mission Mountain is an example of what it could look like.”
This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Reach Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.