In mid-February, over 100 food and farm businesses across the state joined together for Abundant Montana’s inaugural Abundant Connections, a week-long event created to bridge the gap between local food buyers and producers. The virtual format of Abundant Connections allowed Montana producers and buyers to foster new relationships, which would lead to sales opportunities, support our Montana food economy, and get more Montana-produced food served throughout the state.
Prior to the event, participants were asked to fill out a profile for their business, which included products to buy or sell, and the reach of distribution. This information was turned into a Directory of Producers and a Directory of Buyers. Fifty-five producers across the state submitted profiles offering produce, meat, grains, and an assortment of value-added products. The fifty buyers who participated included retail stores, restaurants, K-12 schools, and other institutions all desiring to increase local procurement.
The directories removed many of the barriers businesses face when trying to find new markets or suppliers. Participants described how researching and cold calling prospective buyers is often a slow and time consuming process. According to Logan Mannix with Mannix Family Beef, the directories “proved to be a useful resource for anyone looking for wholesale buyers of local food in Montana.”
Once the week began, producers and buyers set up meetings with businesses that fit their unique schedules. Mannix highlighted the benefit of having buyers reach out to producers directly stating how “one business that contacted us surprised me, as it wasn’t a place I would have thought of contacting or marketing to on my own.”
Over the course of the week, over sixty virtual meetings, or thirty hours of conversations, were officially scheduled. Conversations also took place throughout the week in person, over the phone, or were scheduled for the weeks following Abundant Connections. Ashley Clark, at the Missoula Food Bank, described how the online platform provided the opportunity to connect directly with producers while the directory allowed regional, in-person meetings such as one she attended with Western Montana Growers Coop.
The long term benefit of Abundant Connections reaches beyond possible sales by intentionally connecting the disjointed aspects of the food system. Clark described the week as a unique space to build professional connections with food producers in the region. Similarly, Graham Kerwin, with Timeless Natural Food, described the week as “an extremely worthwhile offering for [Timeless]. Through the event our team was able to connect with, and learn about, innovations in school meal programs, the challenges of supporting local food markets, and the barriers to making locally sourced foods more accessible and affordable.”
Abundant Connections is simply a jumping off point for many conversations to come and we cannot wait to see the connections that producers and buyers continue to make across the state. As Grace Nichols, with the Hamilton School District, stated, “the more buyers and sellers participate in programs like these, the more Montana products people can eat!”
Abundant Connections was a cooperative project between Abundant Montana, a program of AERO, and Montana Farm to School, made possible by generous funders: the Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Montana Specialty Crop Block Grant.