Values-Based Food Supply Chains in Western Montana

There is a sense of change in the air and it is not just spring coming.  There is a change happening and it is about the food we eat. The Montana local food movement is shifting gears and is moving into the mainstream of Montana’s food economy. This shift is the result of a decade of work from committed farmers, ranchers, markets, cooperators and organizations.

Western Montana’s local food movement is creating new economic opportunities for our Montana communities. According to Ken Meter, a regional food analyst, if western Montana consumers purchased only 15% of the food they need for home use directly from the region’s farmers, this would generate approximately $66 million of new farm income to our farmers and ranchers.

In response to this challenge, last winter  the Five Valley Food and Agriculture Summit was held where farmers, ranchers, consumers, institutions, coops and others gathered to look deeper into how we can work together to strengthen our regional food system and open new opportunities for food commerce and business development. Values based food supply chains and food hubs were explored by the participants as alternatives to traditional business models.  In traditional business models relationships often are framed in “win-lose” terms.   Relationships are seen as competitive, even adversarial (companies seek to buy cheap and sell as expensively as possible) and farmers, and ranchers are often interchangeable suppliers of “raw materials.” In contrast Values based food supply chains are viewed as long-term networks or relationships of partnering business enterprises who work together to maximize value for the partners and consumers of a particular product or service creating a win-win situation for all. In values based food supply chains there is an emphasis on shared vision and commitment to the welfare of all participants, including fair profit margins, fair wages, & business agreements of appropriate length (that persist over time).  There is the priority of sustainability of the land, energy, water, and other resources and producing food with sustainable practices to ensure region’s ability to produce food in the future which equates to regional self-reliance.

These models offer a new way of doing business and offer opportunities in building a regional food supply chain.  Western MT has examples of such businesses that are growing and expanding – Western Montana Growers Cooperative, Charlie’s Produce, Mannix Beef, Kalispell Creamery, University of Montana and a growth of new market farmers that are responding to the increased opportunity for creating value chain partnerships.  New enterprises are emerging such as an on-line food coop, and a farm to school value chain between local growers, local schools and the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center.  As one participant of the Summit noted “I envision a network and cooperative of local growers forming to pool resources in order to better facilitate movement of food products into mainstream local markets”

These developments will take our local food economy to a new level – where local food is a mainstream in our grocers and a broader base of the community will enjoy the benefits of the freshness, higher nutrition, and the deeper community values such purchases can bring. Values such as community engagement, preservation of local farmland, environmentally sound practices of small farmers, and the list goes on.

I am excited for what the next decade will bring and I urge you-  If you already buy locally grown food then buy more, and  if you aren’t then it’s time to start now. Be a driver in our emerging food economy.

In Polson I’m Jan Tusick for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us on line at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on March 29, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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