The local food movement is returning Montana to its roots.

BY CLAIRE CELLA

 

As the calendar cycles into spring and summer, farmers across Montana return to their fields, with a growing sense that the seasons are not the only repeating occurrence here. The way farmers are producing and who they’re supplying is turning, even returning, to values that run deep in the state’s soil.

This is due in part to a burgeoning local food movement in the state, one that mirrors a national trend of caring more about the quality of the food we eat and where it comes from. A state known for its rich farming heritage, for decades agriculture has been one of Montana’s primary industries.

This celebrated tradition has also generated one of the country’s most vibrant local food scenes, according to the nonprofit food advocacy organization Strolling of the Heifers. In 2017, their annual “Locavore Index” ranked Montana fourth in the nation based on per- capita USDA Census of Agriculture data from all 50 states. It’s an impressive rating for this rural and arid state, which only trailed Vermont, Maine and Oregon—states with greater population densities, less extreme temperatures, higher precipitation and more progressive demographics.

Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, substantiated her home state’s ranking. In her book, the journalist and lecturer at Stanford University on food and agriculture tells the story of a pioneering family of Montana farmers who bucked the trend of corporate agribusiness by planting lentils, and grew a million-dollar organic food enterprise. “The local food economy is quite vibrant right now in Montana,” she said in an interview. “And it’s not new. People are returning to something—a way of life—that was the norm in their grandparents’ generation.”

There was a period in Montana’s agricultural history when this lifestyle was not predominant. Since the 1950s, Montana food production has capitalized on financial support from the federal government, which encouraged farmers to specialize in certain crops, like wheat and barley, and to grow high volumes for export.

That economic stability of monoculture production was for many farmers too enticing to resist, Carlisle said. As a result, family cows, diverse garden plots and crop rotations disappeared as farmers could no longer afford the time or space to grow anything but high-yield grains and pulses. In 1950, Montana agriculture provided nearly 70 percent of a Montanan’s diet, but at the height of the commodity era, more than 86 percent was imported, according to the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, a membership-based group devoted to promoting clean energy, healthy food and sustainable agriculture in the state.

That change began in the early 1970s, through to the farm crisis in the ‘80s, when fossil fuel prices skyrocketed and global grain prices fell. Farmers that relied on expensive chemical fertilizers to remain productive faced bankruptcy, and they looked out over terrible soil health in their fields. Farmers began to realize that “commodity grain was no longer viable, and this way of farming was not environmentally or socially good,” Carlisle said.

What started with seven members has grown to 36, and last August, the co-op brought in more sales in one month than its first two years.


And if there’s one thing that sets the state apart, she said, it’s a “robust civil society, a moral economy” that allows Montanans to build things, like healthy, local food systems, with intentionality and a sense of responsibility.

The movement is seen as a way to diversify the state’s economy, emphasize the health of Montanans, revive rural towns, and help the state rebuild its community-orientated social structures. And it takes many forms: through farmers markets—Montana has more than 80 with four or five added each year; community-supported agriculture programs; food hubs and cooperatives; and farm-to-school and farm-to-hospital initiatives. It also involves many creative and committed people.

“Whether it’s local food or positive youth development, you can get a lot done in Montana just by knowing a few people and being passionate,” said Steph Hystad, the marketing officer at the Montana Department of Agriculture. Together, the state’s industrious local food nonprofits, innovative entrepreneurs and inspired individuals have created economic development centers, generated local food-based businesses, and collated the available resources—from delivery trucks to marketing strategies.

“It’s that Western mentality of ‘I see this needs to be done and I’m going to do it,’” Hystad said. So when Montanans realized they were losing critical financial opportunities due to a lack of infrastructure, things started to shift. The Department of Agriculture began teaching people how to sustain their businesses by producing products that are now grown, made, processed and sold all within the state.

In 2000, the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center’s facility in Ronan was built to provide a venue for processing, research and the creation of value-added products. The Western Montana Growers Co-op was formed in 2003 by a group of producers who realized they could find a greater economy of scale by working together. What started with seven members has grown to 36, and last August, the co-op brought in more sales in one month than its first two years, according to WMGC General Manager Dave Prather.

"Whether it’s local food or positive youth development, you can get a lot done in Montana just by knowing a few people and being passionate."


Slowly, the infrastructure that connects farmers to the growing demand for local goods is coming back to serve regional markets, helping farmers, ranchers and small Montana towns stay solvent.

Another contribution is the concerted effort to get local food into institutions, such as schools and hospitals. This is done through a number of initiatives such as Farm to School, Beef to School, Farm to Campus, and Trout to Trade. These programs help give smaller producers the broad base of the Montana population to supply because they are such large buying entities— investing nearly $33 million in food annually.

Aubree Roth is Montana’s Farm to School coordinator, as part of the National Farm to School Network, and works closely with Demetrius Fassas, a local foods program specialist with the Farm to Cafeteria Network. Both Roth and Fassas help K-12 schools throughout the state implement school gardens, establish food-based education, and procure local foods for school meal programs.

Their most recent collaboration is Harvest of the Month, a statewide program that showcases Montana-grown foods in communities through a curriculum of cooking lessons, recipes and taste tests. So far, over 130 schools have participated, Fassas said, and schools in the program increased their spending on local foods by an average of 40 percent in one year.

Programs like Farm to Campus at Montana State University in Bozeman, and the University of Montana’s Farm-to-College Program in Missoula, have been growing for over a decade. According to Kara Landolfi, MSU’s Farm to Campus coordinator, their initiative invests more than $1.5 million, or 22.4 percent, of the total annual budget in local foods to feed its students.

MSU’s Steer-A-Year program provides nearly 30 cows annually, which are raised by students and fed to finish at the university’s teaching farm, and then used as meat for the dining services.

Seth Bostick, who runs the dining service at the Kalispell Regional Health Center, puts quality of food as the first priority—because his primary clients are hospital patients who need proper nutrition.

When Bostick joined Kalispell Regional, he sought out cleaner proteins by sourcing local grass-fed beef, and the equivalent for pork, poultry and fish. He also blanches, roasts and freezes seasonal produce to provide local products year-round.

Bostick is encouraged by the growth and stability of the state’s homegrown food movement. “You know it’s a state filled with good people when you see them switch the way they’ve been doing things for years, just because they want to, because it’s right, even if they’re getting less money,” Bostick said. “That speaks volumes of these farmers and ranchers.”

 

In the end, Montana’s local food movement just makes sense. “People here are closer to agriculture, they see it every day, and they realize it’s important for our children to be involved, to understand and to celebrate Montana
agriculture,” Hystad said.

People take great pride in being from Montana, Carlisle added. “There’s something unspoiled about our state—the clean water, clean air, the open space—and I think that’s something that people want to also be in their food.”

New York state native Claire Cella never imagined herself living in Wyoming. Growing up, all she knew about the state was that it contained Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole—now she lives in Lander and works for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, quite contentedly. She’s not shy to admit she moved to the West for the same reasons everyone else seems to—easy access to the mountains for camping trips, skiing and trail runs.