MSU Extension agent works to score on a new court: getting locally produced food to Montanans
BOZEMAN, MT – Bruce Smith used to dunk Bobcat basketballs into a hoop, but for the past few years, he’s been concentrating on increasing the Montana-grown foods that get dunked into Montana bellies. With each dunk, he scores for the state’s economy.
“For each percent more that we eat of Montana-produced foods, we add about $30 million to the state’s economy,” says Smith, a Montana State University Extension agent for Dawson County who played basketball for the Cats from 1973-1977. After that, he played pro-ball in France for a year, got a masters degree in business administration and worked for Pillsbury, Unilever and ConAgra before coming to MSU Extension.
Smith says that in 1950, 70 percent of the food Montanans ate was produced in-state. Today that figure is 10 percent or less. He is working to extend Montana’s capacity to produce, package and distribute a wider range of locally grown food than has been available in most of the state. He’s starting in Dawson, but hopes the system he develops will be a model for other areas of Montana.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to get Montanans eating 50 percent Montana-grown foods,” he says.
His plans include elements that were already in place when he became the Extension agent in Glendive in 1996, such as a program to improve area employment called Community GATE. But a visioning process in 2005 filled in other areas of opportunity, from forming a marketing cooperative for regional farmers and developing a commercial kitchen where food entrepreneurs could test recipes and develop their food ideas, to developing a restaurant with microbrewery and a culinary training school.
While Smith is putting a huge amount of energy into these programs, they grew from the community as a whole. During a visioning process sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation via its Horizon leadership program, citizens listed community strengths and opportunities that they thought would have the most chance of success.
The community then hired a professional to do a feasibility study of the options. The report said:
– A marketing cooperative was a good idea, (though Smith points out that a precursor is demonstrating which products could best be grown and marketed).
– Creating a restaurant/microbrewery that would purchase local foods has the most profit potential but would be the most difficult to raise funds for, since it would be a for-profit venture.
– An observation that the commercial kitchen had great potential to benefit the community but probably would break even at best.
Though the kitchen would only break even, Smith says it is one of the core needs to make the Dawson County region thrive.
“We have to have a place for food entrepreneurs to work,” he says. “We want profits to stay local. If I can get somebody who knows how to do roasted wheat kernels or Aunt Betty’s rhubarb pie to sell it locally, then we can start buying local food. The kitchen is like a business incubator for food entrepreneurs. They get some technical help, and if it works they start ramping up. It may take five years for them to work out all the bugs, but then they may create their own factory.”
The community’s efforts received a recent boost when the Northwest Area Foundation named the Glendive-based Community GATE as one of its “Great Strides” winners for 2008. With the award came $100,000, which has been used for the commercial kitchen.
In June, commercial kitchen equipment was installed at 313 S. Merrill in Glendive with more equipment on the way. The model will be that food entrepreneurs can rent the space and receive the help of a person, yet to be hired, who can advise on use of the equipment and proper food handling and preserving techniques.
In addition, the award plus a grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Growth through Agriculture program helped Smith purchase an innovative growing system called a “high tunnel,” which extends the growing season by one to three months in the Glendive area.
Similar to heated greenhouses, high tunnels lack common greenhouse electrical components and automation. A simple frame is covered by a polyethylene cover. Crops are grown in the ground, but are protected from temperature fluctuations and light frost. They reduce moisture fluctuation and wind, while warming the soil and allowing use of biological pest control.
They also are relatively inexpensive and are frequently used for protected vegetable production, allowing growers to offer out-of-season produce, which can be sold at a premium price.
The high tunnel’s sides can be raised to allow ventilation. Erected within sight of the local farmer’s market, Smith is testing various crops, from rutabaga and bok choi to cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Next year, we’ll have red ripe tomatoes by July 4th,” he predicts.
However, more important than what Smith can produce in the high tunnel is what ideas it may inspire in passers-by.
“In Minnesota, the high tunnels are paying for themselves in one and a half to three years,” Smith says. “There aren’t many ag related things with the pay-back that fast.”
Marketing and distribution are the core challenges, and places where a growers’ cooperative should be a help. Smith says all of the technical pieces of a co-op are in place, including about 2,000 potential shares of stock.
“It is tough for an individual grower to break into the market,” says Steve Pust, who grew several hundred acres of onions north of Glendive a few years ago under the company name of Yellowstone Produce. “You have to have consistency of supply, and you can’t afford to put a salesman on the road to sell 300-400 pounds of onions a week. A co-op could help with that. You have to sell 4,000 to 5,000 pounds a week, and that takes a lot of stores.”
Smith says high energy costs are also working in favor of smaller distribution areas, especially if crop producers market together. He says that, plus the many recent food recalls, are increasing people’s desire to know where there food comes from, which adds to their desire to buy from local producers.
Smith acknowledges the challenges are many – an “octopus” he calls all the tendrils that must be brought together for the system to function – but so are the potential rewards for the region.
“The food you eat changes hands an average of 33 times before it gets to your table, and very seldom does anything good happen to your food by the extra handling.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News