The state’s first privately owned food processing center, Montana Food Products, LLC, opened earlier this month in Lolo, filling a major void in western Montana’s local food network. President Ron Oberlander of Florence says he invested $500,000 into building the facility, which he expects to be utilized by local food producers as well as to process products from his other businesses, Montana Cattle Co. and US Omega 3 Foods.
Food processing served as Montana’s top industry up through World War II, but now, thanks to cheap fuel and an improved transportation infrastructure, in-state processing is so minimal the census doesn’t keep data on it.
“What that means is that since people don’t eat wheat and sides of beef—they eat bread and tortillas and hamburgers and fajitas—Montana’s missing out on the opportunity to put food in the form that people need it,” says Nancy Matheson of Grow Montana, “and so all of the value that’s added in food processing is leaving our communities and our state.”
In Barbara Champlin’s case, the problem extends to food products for people who can’t eat wheat. Champlin is the kind of local food entrepreneur Montana Food Products aims to attract. She runs Sis’s Kitchen, selling gluten-free breads to the Good Food Store and crusts to Biga Pizza. She had operated out of the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan, but moved to the new facility in Lolo for its proximity to Missoula.
“Once other people who are trying to start their businesses catch wind of this, I feel that it’s really going to take off,” she says.
That’s Skip Cleek’s hope. The sprightly and bespectacled manager of Montana Food Products says huge potential exists in the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of local foods. He points out that, just months after opening, the company has already broken ground on a 16,000-square-foot expansion.
To help capitalize on the new facility’s capabilities, Montana Food Products scheduled a food buyers’ symposium for Feb. 3 with the likes of Wal-Mart and Sysco. It’s an effort, Cleek says, “to get these products in the hands of a wider market.”