Food for thought 

UM's Farm to College program aims to sustain local agriculture, one bite at a time

Almost a year ago to the day, a group of ranchers and farmers from various reaches of Western Montana gathered in Missoula.

The travelers came from places like Ronan and Hamilton, Thompson Falls and Lincoln, where they raised cows or grew tomatoes and apples. Some processed tea, others made jerky.

This crew of earthy farmers and weathered ranchers had one thing in common: The University of Montana had invited them to breakfast. But this particular breakfast, called Montana Mornings, was no ordinary affair; everything on the plate had been grown in Montana. And through feeding the growers, the University hoped to launch a relationship that would lead to more Montana-made and -raised products finding their way to the school’s Dining Services and retail stores.

A year later, that breakfast has blossomed into the Farm to College program, which aims to bring Montana’s harvest straight to local big-time buyers—a move that could not only help rebuild the state’s agricultural economy, but also provide students with fresh foods.

In an era when 49 percent of the country’s food is served in industrial settings (schools, prisons, hospitals), the University of Montana’s Dining Services is leading the charge to bolster a local market for foods grown and processed in Montana and the region. Not only is a food-purchasing giant like UM Dining Services—with an annual budget of $2.5 million—interested in buying local products, the program gives local producers an opportunity to sell to the University as easily as possible. Though similar projects exist around the country, UM’s project is still experimental, and has the potential to serve as an example to other institutions around the country.

Farm to College fills student stomachs with beef from the Mission Valley, bread from Three Forks, produce from the Bitterroot and safflower cooking oil from the northeastern part of the state. The Big Sky Quesadilla and the all-Montana pork sandwich have become campus favorites.

“This is a regional sustainability program,” says UM Dining Services Director Mark LoParco. “This is something that is trending right now. There are a lot of people in this country looking at where their food comes from. Our job is to be proactive and on the front edge of these trends.”

Currently the program works with 41 local vendors, companies like Big Sky Mushrooms, Big Sky Teas, Good Eggs, Roaring Lion Organics, Cream of the West and Montana Legends Beef. In the last year, regional producers have taken in $366,000, roughly 6 percent of UM Dining Service’s budget. It’s a good start to the resuscitation of Montana’s barely breathing agrarian economy, LoParco says. But, it’s a number that leaves plenty of room for growth. Soon students will see Montana lettuce on the menu.

One of the keys to expanding the local market is educating local growers. Hence this year’s vendor fair on May 6, called UM Farm to College Program: Cultivating Partnerships and Celebrating the Harvest. The forum is the follow-up to the Montana Mornings breakfast. Organizers hope it helps teach potential vendors about what the University’s needs are, as well as how to cut through the system’s red tape.

“Farm to College opens up some pretty big markets,” LoParco says. “This is a collaboration to get everybody aware of what we’re doing.”

LoParco has also invited the entire state Legislature to the May 6 event.

“Clearly this is a grassroots initiative that is connecting all parts of the state and generating a lot of interest amongst voters,” LoParco says. “If I were a politician I would keep an eye on this as it gains momentum. This has potential to be a sustainable Montana industry, versus the exploitive industries we’ve had.”

One of the program’s most steadfast allies is the grant-supported non-profit Mission Mountain Market in Ronan. The Market is a community resource that says it “holds the hands” of growers as they become producers, wading through regulations laid down by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the state of Montana and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“We’re a clearinghouse of information for people who want to find a way to get their product to market,” Mission Mountain Marketing Specialist Jennifer Forbis says. In addition to its business skills, Mission Mountain Market also has a commercial-grade food-processing facility that allows local growers to add value to their products, say by turning raw apples into cider, a product that fetches a higher price.

Mission Mountain’s 16,000-square-foot green warehouse dominates the business district of downtown Ronan. The building sports fresh green paint and stands out as contemporary amongst other more disheveled businesses on the block. You can feel its economic presence. Last year, Ronan’s Montana Natural Beef, one of the businesses housed in the Market, generated $320,000 in revenues, and aims to grow by 50 percent this year.

Founded in 1998, the Mission Mountain Market now helps 11 producers transform their goods from raw material to packaged product. Lolo Creek Mustard processes its yellow spread up there. Tipu’s Tiger creates its chai tea. Montana Legends Beef packages and stores beef (checked daily by the USDA). Crooked Bow makes Native American-style smoked jerky on the premises, flavoring the facility’s air. Big Sky Teas mixes and presses spearmint and echinacea into bags. Amazing Grains has a wheat-free milling space to grind Indian ricegrass into gluten-free flour. And last Wednesday, a company out of Bozeman called West Paw contracted with the Market to make tea bags of catnip for Montana-made cat toys.

Gigantic mixers for barbecue sauce and salad dressing incorporating Montana-grown flowers litter the commercial kitchen. Industrial kitchenware like a steam-jacket kettle (to heat 60 gallons of a substance evenly) and an auger filler decorate the processing area. A passing glance reveals sealers, ribbon blenders, shrink-wrap machines, dehydrators, juice lines and pasteurizers.

Aside from the semi-sized storage facilities and state-of-the-art processing facilities, the building also houses “business incubators” upstairs. While the “incubators” are but small corners tucked away within the building, they serve as protective nests for young businesses readying themselves for the big, bad world. The Mission Mountain Market provides such fledgling ventures with the practical necessities of office space, as well as advice, help with business plans and financial assistance.

“We’ve seen a lot of people just not get through the early stages of business, even if they have a great idea,” Forbis says. “There’s a high rate of failure in small business. They’re not ready for all the regulations or not prepared for all of the paperwork.”

Forbis says that selling food in Montana isn’t like it used to be.

“It used to be that if you had an incredible recipe, you could make it in your kitchen and sell it,” Forbis says. “Now you need liability insurance, state-approved labels and a commercial kitchen.”

At the same time, Montana’s processing infrastructure has all but vanished. Mission Mountain Market is working to bring it back.

“There are ways to process our foods here,” Market Community Food Project Coordinator Jane Kile says. “We can keep moving together and help create jobs with processing facilities and small businesses. Fifty years ago, Montana had a lot of processing infrastructure. Now, that’s left. If we can bring that back on a smaller scale, we can really help the local economies.

“The only way to compete on a small level is to develop a deep, committed local market,” Kile says. “Your products aren’t going to go to Wal-Mart or Safeway. Those places are going to get their stuff cheap from a big plant in Washington or Brazil. But now, even the big processing facilities in this country are struggling because it’s all going to Latin America or South America, because it’s cheaper to make the stuff down there. The markets used to be stable for years. Now they change so quickly.”

In fact, it was local economy that kept beef prices stable for the University last autumn when global prices spiked.

“We were buying beef from the Mission Valley and weren’t affected by the global market,” LoParco says.

Mission Mountain Market was a logical place to hunt for vendors when it came time to get Farm to College off of the ground. “In September, when the University came back into session, they asked me to find some products for them. We were able to find apples and tomatoes. Since then it has been a growing relationship,” Kile says. “The University is such a big market and they are such a presence. They can influence a lot of other people. I really commend Mark LoParco for stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘I’m going to use our position to really make some statements and help make some changes for the local economy and the local people.’”

The offer was right in stride with one of the Market’s main priorities: to sell to local big-market institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“Next we hope to expand to the Salish Kootenai College, and see how we do with hospitals and secondary schools,” Kile says.

Farm to College has such potential as a blueprint for future institutions because it breaks the mold of typical vendor-buyer relationships, Mission Market’s Forbis says.

Typically an institution doesn’t want to shop around, Forbis says. “They don’t want to hear from everybody who has tomatoes. They want to buy them from one place.” The University, on the other hand, under Farm to College, wants to comparison shop. “They are encouraging individual growers to sell to them,” says Forbis.

To help, LoParco arranged field trips for the farmers to tour the University’s facilities to get an idea of just exactly what Dining Services needs. That way they can grow niche crops for the school.

“They were down here looking at what we need, and they would say, ‘Tell me what kind of tomato you want and we’ll grow those tomatoes,’” LoParco says.

In turn, LoParco visited with regional food producers to better understand their side of the fence.

“The opportunity to go to the ranches and the farms incredibly impressed me with the length that that these people will go to preserve the farming heritage of the state,” LoParco says. “It solidified [my] conviction to do this for local and regional sustainability.”

The project has even reshaped LoParco’s personal purchasing patterns. He’s shopping for a new float tube for fishing. He says he’ll only buy a regional product from a local store.

While the Mission Mountain Marketplace has provided a network and facility for local producers to bring their product to market, and LoParco is helping to create a market, this project was originally conceived, here in Montana, in professor Neva Hassanein’s class room.

A stroll into her office in Jeannette Rankin Hall reveals books with titles like How Schools and Farms are Building Alliances.

While teaching a class called Environmental Organizing, some of her students received word from LoParco that there was area interest in getting Farm to College started, but he had no labor to throw into the task.

That’s where Shelly Connor and Chrissie McMullan stepped in. The duo took the project on as part of their master’s portfolio.

“Usually when people do a portfolio, it’s in one little notebook. Chrissie and Shelly’s is in eight,” Hassanein says.

Connor and McMullan were instrumental in setting up Montana Mornings, as well as this year’s vendor fair.

“We’re obviously going to use this event to celebrate the achievements of the last year, but we’re also going to look at how we can grow the Farm to College program,” Hassanein says. “What’s most exciting is that [Connor and McMullan] have really succeeded at institutionalizing this idea,” Hassanein says. “We’ve got interest now, at an institutional level, to buy more local food. By demonstrating that we have a local institutional market, we create opportunities for farmers, ranchers and other entrepreneurs interested in food to realize that a market exists and they can fill it.”

One of Connor’s duties was to work as a liaison between UM Dining Services and local producers.

“They needed growers to be really reliable and have their own delivery systems,” Connor says. “They needed delivery schedules on a regular basis and huge quantities, which proved to be the biggest challenge.”

Connor says that communication on the project began picking up when UM officials traveled to the farms and vice versa.

“Dining Services was able to understand the challenges that growers face,” Connor says. “And growers learned what size tomato they need to grow and at what ripeness it needs to be to go through the slicer.”

Hassanein describes the project as a win-win situation.

“It’s a win for the environment because we reduce fuel costs. Food travels an average of 1,300 miles to reach us, and that creates a lot of carbon dioxide,” Hassanein says. “It’s also a win for the economy. We can keep money circulating in Montana’s economy by buying local. Why shouldn’t our state institutions support our local producers? It’s also a win for social relations. Most of us don’t know anything about where our food comes from or how it’s produced. This program helps us realize that.”

jmahan@missoulanews.com

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