Most of what I've read lately about food in America makes me lose my appetite. Outbreaks of deadly pathogens that sicken or even kill people. Chemical spray and dead zones. Exploited workers. "Hollywood Food" that looks great but lacks taste and nutrition. It's enough to make me want to sell my vegetable farm.
That is why I am so eager to tell a story about how a few vegetable farmers in one small community are collaborating with a food co-op to realize one big idea: Providing locally grown food year-round. It's not going to counteract all the bad news, but it is hopeful—and hope is the reason I haven't sold my farm.
The Community Food Co-op in Bozeman is surrounded by mountains, ranches, farms and hay fields, and for its entire 34-year history, it has bought only locally produced fresh food grown within 100 miles of Bozeman. This year, it's planning to buy more—a lot more. Already, in 2012, the Co-op doubled the amount of local produce it purchased. This was partly a result of increased demand, encouraged by some of the Co-op's organizational decisions.
The Co-op maintains a central kitchen, where almost all the food is prepared for delivery to its two retail food stores. The management is made up of complete and utter foodies, who understand the ethics of eating locally and the environmental and economic benefits involved. They also understand budgets.
The Co-op uses produce daily in its salad bars and prepares hot meals to sell in both food stores. One major change involves how it's using local produce in the processed foods that can be stored for sale throughout the year, with pumpkin pies as a great example. Right before Thanksgiving in 2011, the Co-op sold roughly $5,000 worth of pies, using canned, locally grown, pre-made pumpkin for filling.
That was amazing enough. Last year, though, using local pumpkins that had been processed a month earlier, the Co-op sold nearly $12,000 in pies in the same time period. The local pumpkin surge was a success.
To be sure, an extra marketing effort helped create more awareness about the pies and their ingredients, undoubtedly helping sales. And because the Co-op was purchasing in wholesale quantities, growers like myself could drop our prices a bit, meaning that the pies were also less expensive.
But that was only the beginning. In 2013, the Co-op wants to significantly increase the amount of local food it uses, mostly by canning, freezing and pickling. Of course, this requires investment—around $50,000 in equipment and 60 more hours a week in additional staffing during the harvest months. The costs are not paltry, but between grants and increased sales, the Co-op anticipates recouping this money within two years.
This is a revolutionary change for selling local food. Processing removes the significant barrier of seasonality, which has historically limited the availability of Montana-grown produce. Now, I can sell more food than I could in years past, when I could only sell the Co-op what it could use immediately. It was still a considerable amount, but the seasons limited my sales.
With processing, I can grow more food in the summer, keep my prices down for the Co-op, and in return the Co-op can buy more food and sell it for months. Everyone wins: I find a bigger market, making my business more stable. The Co-op finds a steadier supply of local foods, its shoppers get the food they like to eat and the prices stay affordable. This proves that communities can take control of their own food supplies while also helping farmers who use ethical, sustainable, no-spray practices to forge a stronger relationship with a local food organization.
I like this story because it shows how any community can make significant moves toward food security and self-reliance, all the while showing positive results on the bottom line. We don't need laws or scare tactics to make these changes, just trust and strong taste buds.
Dean Williamson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a vegetable farmer in Bozeman, where he also sits on the Board of the Community Food Co-op and coordinates the Sustainable Food & Bioenergy Systems program at Montana State University.