Building a Resilient Bitterroot

The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center is a new and active organization, located in an old farmhouse in Hamilton.  Samantha O’Byrne is its founder and director, and shared her thoughts with us about the Cottage Food Law workshop AERO held last spring.  I asked where the name came from, and Samantha said, “Robert O’Hara was the first mayor of Hamilton, and Marcus Daly’s attorney.”  He built the farmhouse back in 1896 and its regality has been well-preserved over the years.

Samantha tells us she has been on the path of sustainability all her life, and has lived in the Bitterroot for quite a while, operating a small retail shop in Hamilton for 13 years.  “Ravalli County has a lot of unemployment and poverty, and lots of people getting unhealthy food,” she said.  She began offering healthy food education and resources to all economic strata and age groups in the community, and The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center grew from those workshops and programs.   

The O’Hara Center connects people to local foods, and their mission, “Empowering a Resilient Community,” is an admirable one.  Their long term vision is to utilize and develop available resources to benefit community through education, resource sharing and demonstration gardens.  They do this in a manner which builds local economy, promotes healthy food options, and develops regional self-sufficiency. Like AERO, they are a membership-based organization; O’Hara’s membership is on a sliding fee schedule, with the intent that people join in at a level that fits their ability to give.  Samantha wanted to be sure we shared that “scholarship memberships are available in order to ensure that we can be inclusive to families and individuals who may not otherwise be able to participate in our programs.”

During AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshop series, the Center was in the midst of relicensing their commercial kitchen, so they attended the workshop in Arlee hoping to learn how the new laws would fit in with the kitchen upgrades and remodel.  Through workshop discussions, they eventually redirected their intentions for the kitchen, and built an education-based kitchen instead of a wholly commercial kitchen open to the public.  Updating the past licensing information at the kitchen delayed the opening, but it is now properly licensed and members have access to all the kitchen’s tools, and all other shared resources.


The workshop provided some great networking opportunities, Samantha told us, and the information sharing between sanitarians and other local organizations was valuable.  Samantha feels that networking in the Bitterroot is not difficult, and there are many producers and growers in the area that are aiming for the same “local foods” goals.  “It is easy in our area to access producers of local healthy food options,” she says, compared to other “food deserts” in Montana.  

Samantha noted that workshop presenters received so many questions about the law, some of which did not yet have clear-cut answers or guidelines, that attendees felt a follow up class was important.  The many nuances of the law are still being hashed out, and attendees hope for updates, or more detailed classes.  (Good news!  AERO received a Grant for more workshops, to be held this fall!)

This summer, the O’Hara Center will be hosting a Wednesday Farmers’ Market, brought about by the need for a mid-week market.  They will promote a “regional food” market, which includes the nearby Lemhi county in Idaho, and include  a “truth in labeling” project which will provide information such as “organic,” or “grass-fed” at each vendor spot.

The O’Hara Center is membership based, and joining gives you access to discounted workshops and tool rentals.  They also offer truck and cider press sharing, as part of an effort to help those with storage space or financial limitations.  Samantha’s passion for healthy, local food was evident in our conversation, and a look at their website shows a full set of workshops aimed at every age and ability.  Check it out at 

We wish the Board and Members of the O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center the best of luck with the new programs in 2017!

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