The Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) asked nearly 200 Montana sustainable agriculture producers, food-related businesses, and partners: What project would most strengthen Montana’s local sustainable agriculture economy? The results of our on-the-ground research called for statewide coordination to grow regional food systems by facilitating planning, networking and collaboration in regional food systems. The next step is the focus of the AERO Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) project, a statewide project focusing on 4 regions of Montana, located around Helena, North Flathead Valley, Bozeman and Malta, each at different stages in understanding and developing their local food economies.
The MFEI is based on regional food network planning to identify solutions to local sustainable agricultural issues. This project stands out,
particularly in Montana, because the AERO membership base is made up of producers who directly inform the work AERO does. AERO has
identified 3 geographically diverse producers who will act as Field Advisors (FA) and one liaison to Bozeman’s Open and Local Steering Committee, driving MFEI Steering Committee who have demonstrated leadership in exploring the building of their local food systems. Each will serve two capacities: at the regional and state level. They will serve as members of a statewide Steering Committee that will hold planning and review Steering Committee meetings; help plan, draft, review, edit, and implement regional food network plans in 4 regions; and participate in final evaluation, summary analysis, and report of the MFEI project. FAs will participate on a Regional Planning Team; participate in their regional food network planning meetings; and will bring regional research results back to educate and inform other regional efforts.
AERO will work with regions where sustainable agriculture interest exists, but capacity and knowledge gaps impede supply chain growth
and at varying degrees among the regions, necessitating a customized approach for each region. With over 40 years of working directly with
sustainable agriculture producers and colleagues statewide, AERO is uniquely positioned to serve as the hub that connects each regional
food network to each other. The MFEI project is innovative in that it is creating a statewide approach to regional efforts and connecting
these efforts through MFEI, with strategic planning, and an interactive website (mtfoodeconomy.org). As regions plan, AERO will facilitate
the knowledge transfer and resource sharing among regions, including potential roadblocks and opportunities for development, and ensure
each region can move forward more quickly and not have to reinvent the wheel each time.
With Montana being a large state, with so many variables from infrastructure to climate, it is a reality that the best solutions often come
from the local level. Collaboration, communication, and cooperation are the keys to success in re-developing our local food system. The
MFEI grew out of western Montana where there exists a long history of collaboration in the sustainable agriculture and food sectors, in
food procurement, processing, and distribution. By bringing together people involved in all aspects of the food chain, from education and
research, wholesale and distribution, policy advocacy, and processing, these collaborations evolved to create a successful regional food
It is this history of collaboration that helped the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative (WMGC) grow from a $200,000 to a $2.2 million
dollar sustainable agriculture operation since 2003. Producers developed a marketing and distribution system that freed up their time,
expanded their markets and guarantees consumers access to locally-grown food. They were take a producer need and expand it into a
community based regional food system which now includes processing, storage and markets expanded to schools and institutions. The
MFEI project will enable other regions understand and capitalize on the existing and future economic development potential of their
regional food system, and achieve similar, if not the same successes, as our Western Montana regional food system.
Our western Montana colleagues developed their Strategic Plan using the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (Whole Measures
CFS) model, a values-based, community-oriented tool for evaluation and planning for community change. This tool not only focuses on
outputs and outcomes, but also recognizes that the success of community food projects requires more than the compilation of statistics. The
MFEI project will develop 4 regional food network strategic plans using the same tool, where each region will gather on-the-ground local
sustainable agriculture data to examine current conditions, explore regional roadblocks, learn from other regions’ efforts, and identify next
best steps to grow the regional food system. Each region will gather baseline quantitative and qualitative data to measure the region’s food
system growth and allow them to return to the participatory process to evaluate their progress annually.
AERO will share the results of these strategic plan at a presentation in each region, in an online report announced in press releases, AERO
outreach methods, and various online mediums, including the MFEI website. There will be regional presentations, as well as outreach at
statewide and local sustainable agriculture conferences and through partner outreach mediums.
While Montana ranks in the top 10 in the United States for local food production and consumption, there are still many barriers to
overcome. The best place to start is by making our regions stronger, learning from each other, and working together to develop our
sustainable agriculture food systems across Montana. With Western SARE support, AERO will help with 4 Montana regions and expand
sustainable agricultural opportunities through regional food network development statewide.
1. Convene the Project Team and hold introductory meeting: The MFEI Steering Committee (SC) is Principal Investigator (PI) and the 5
Field Advisors (FA): identify project roles; discuss and define project parameters; and schedule at least 4 SC meetings (August 2017 –
2. Promote and Monitor Montana Food Economy Initiative website (mtfoodeconomy.org): Develop outreach plan to engage producers and
participants and provide an ongoing interactive moderated forum for planning process and beyond. Post resources and meeting findings.
Analyze website usage statistics and assess effectiveness of online forum, including recommendations for future use (July 2017 – March
3. Design and Implement Strategic Planning Process: SC review Whole Measures CFS and determine planning process, regional meetings
format and attendees; develop outreach materials; PI & AERO staff draft regional meetings’ structure and SC finalize (August 2017 –
4. Organize 4 Regional Planning Teams and meetings: PI identify 4 AERO members to serve as Regional Chairperson (RC); PI & SC create 4
Regional Planning Teams (RPT) of FA, producers, consumers, food purchasers, nonprofits and community partners; PI meet with RPTs and
explain process, content and identify roles; PI schedule 2 planning meetings in each region (July 2017 – October 2017).
5. Promote regional planning meetings and research to producers: Develop and disseminate meeting announcements to stakeholder groups.
Attract 30 to 40 registrants for each meeting. Monitor registrations and follow-up to achieve balanced representations across groups.
Generate 10 feature stories about regional planning process and results (August 2017 – September 2019).
6. Conduct regional strategic planning: PI will facilitate 2 meetings in each region using the Whole Measures CFS research planning
process and survey instrument to understand existing sustainable agriculture resources and determine opportunities to grow regional food
networks. RC will record meetings and PI draft meeting summary (October 2017 – September 2019).
7. Collect and analyze results from each region: PI and AERO staff analyze data, meeting summaries, surveys and other attendee input;
create a preliminary RFNSP. RPTs review with PI and submit draft RFNSP to SC. SC will summarize and analyze plans from each region
and develop RFNSP ready for final community review (April – September 2019).
8. Facilitate community education: Hold final community meeting in each region and provide RFNSP; present data gathered and key
findings of research; identify progress and remaining needs to achieve a functional common understanding across stakeholders (October
2018 – September 2019).
9. Review and finalize RFNSPs and write Final Project Report: Add additional information including producer and participants attendance,
demographics, producer information-sharing successes and assess the status of implementation of RFNSP and whether a common
understanding has been achieved (January – September 2019).
Over the past several months we have identified the following:
Bozeman process and structure
The Open & Local group formed on a similar timeline as the MFEI Steering Committee began gathering. As O&L had a Steering Committee of their own established, it didn’t make sense for their MFEI participation to mirror the structure of the other regions – namely establishing a Regional Planning Team and working towards a regional strategic plan for the MFEI grant. Thus, a unique path has been created by AERO and Open & Local, one that has already provided meaningful exchanges for both entities. AERO staff and the O&L Field Advisor meet in person or by phone monthly to exchange regional updates, brainstorm resources including upcoming trainings and food systems leaders, and discuss common challenges.
Varying Availability During The Growing Season
As 2018 got up and running, our Regional Planning Teams had concrete goals laid out for the summer months. The actual experience of summer productivity, however, varied quite a bit from region to region. The North Flathead team is comprised mostly of vegetable farmers and once the growing season picked up in pace (not long after their first community meeting in April 2018), their capacity to make progress on the MFEI grant decreased dramatically. In contrast, both Malta and Helena regions organized and carried out their first community meetings during the summer and attendance was successful. The varying capacity of our Regional Planning Teams during the Montana growing season can be attributed to a few different factors, the individual make up of RPTs being the most influential one. These differences will be important for us to keep in mind as we approach the last leg of our grant. The North Flathead team has already began frontloading their deliverables for the spring of 2019. Helena and Malta stakeholders will have additional availability as we approach summer.
Regional Planning Team Progress
Between April and December of 2018, each MFEI Region has made significant progress:
Helena’s first community meeting went smoothly in August 2018 with about thirty community members in attendance. The bulk of the meeting was spent in small working groups with assigned facilitators charged with guiding the group through prepared questions. After the community meeting, the Regional Planning Team (RPT) decided that in order to gather additional input from stakeholders that weren’t represented at the first meeting, it would be useful to design an additional survey. Significant effort was made by the RPT members to distribute, collect, and synthesize the survey results. From the twenty three surveys completed, the RPT learned that many of the challenges and needs described were similar to those identified at the larger community meeting as well as the many RPT meetings throughout the year: the need for marketing and business planning resources, education to the public about the value of local food, access to food storage space, and local processing opportunities for meat producers. The RPT increased collaborative efforts with the East Helena Food Hub (EHFH) over the past several months. Our Field Advisor now serves on the hub’s Advisory Council. The EHFH is currently holding culinary training workshops and has plans to build a high tunnel greenhouse in the near future. A recent survey that the hub disseminated provides some insight into the community needs such as community gathering spaces, better food options and safe places for kids and teens to hang out. One opportunity for future collaboration between our efforts is related to food production. The producers involved in the MFEI project can help increase the EHFH’s capacity to source locally. They can also align community garden efforts and continue to think creatively about how to attract new producers to the valley in the future. The Helena RPT has outlined the beginning of a structure for their second community meeting which they plan to hold in the Spring of 2019.
AERO staff have continued our collaborative efforts with the Open & Local group over the past several months, attending workshops, presentations, local food celebrations all while meeting new stakeholders and promoting the MFEI program. Our Field Advisor in Bozeman, Kate Wright, met the rest of the Steering Committee members in November 2018. Kate shared Open & Local’s progress with the other Field Advisors, providing insight as to how their group decided to pursue to formalize their structure into a non profit organization. Open & Local has spent the better part of the last two years exploring what in particular they should focus their energy on in the realm of local food and land preservation. Over the course of that time, they’ve worked with Montana State University professors with the help of a seed grant. The grant funded a series of dialogues, strengthening their ties to the university, exploring what other food collaborations look like and assisting them in the development of an action plan. Open & Local concluded that for the near future, their role is best fit to facilitate planning, networking, and collaboration to accelerate system change in their community. The regular check ins with Open & Local have been extremely valuable to the MFEI planning phase. Our continued exchange of resources, lessons learned, and ever expanding networks continue to strengthen the food economy network across the state.
Following their first community meeting in April 2018, the North Flathead RPT turned their attention to growing food for their community. Once the farms were mostly put to bed for the season, the RPT got back to work. This was an important lesson for this region, as the majority of the RPT members are full time farmers. Initially, the RPT had laid out ambitious plans to meet and conduct research over the summer. Once autumn approached and the plans were still in queue, the team readjusted their planning schedule for the remainder of the year. The RPT members conducted research over the past few months on topics such as cooperative models, existing Montana local food campaigns, local food system models, distribution systems, and strategies for connecting with the public through educational campaigns. The team spent time sharing their research findings and refining their focus and goals for the remainder of the MFEI planning grant. The RPT has set dates for their second and third community meetings, scheduled to take place in February and March of 2019. The third community meeting will coincide with the fourth Annual Free the Seeds Fair in Kalispell, MT. More details about this event can be found in the success story section of this report. Returning to the roots of the planning process, the RPT spent time over the last month discussing the values of the group. They agreed that their collective values should be clearly reflected in the strategic plan produced over the next few months. Another important discussion point with the RPT has been around the invite list for the second community meeting. In order for the data collected at that meeting to be the most meaningful and accurate, the RPT is giving the invite list some serious consideration. A much more selective and targeted approach to stakeholder engagement will likely take place prior to the second community meeting.
The Malta region has a loosely organized Regional Planning Team, with a commercial kitchen and woolen mill owner as Field Advisor leading the conversations and discussions for the project. In July of 2018, the original RPT lost members due to miscellaneous circumstances, so AERO and the FA, Thayne Mackey, discussed having Jackie Heinert, AERO’s Local Food Systems Coordinator begin assisting the RPT. After several discussions, Jackie Heinert was put in place as the Malta region’s RPT chair, where she has worked to continue communication and outreach in the region. This region is the largest in the MFEI project, but includes the smallest population of people.
The FA held several informal conversations between the March 2018 SC meeting and an August 2018 community meeting in Malta. Extension Agents, restaurants, schools, daycares, hospitals, distributors, butchers, grocery stores, bulk processors, gardeners, truck gardens, and food banks provided feedback and helped the FA determine the most common issues for the region. The concerns they identified include: available transportation of raw products and finished goods, regulation and law education, conflicting regulations with Local, State and Federal Entities, and information access.
Despite the challenges of distance and busy producer schedules, the FA coordinated a joint Farm to Table dinner and community meeting in Malta, which AERO staff attended. At the meeting, there were 15 local producers and food industry individuals. AERO spoke briefly about MFEI desired outcomes and the method of producer-led conversations to gather data about challenges and desires regarding local food economy improvement. The above identified issues were presented to the attendees and clarifying discussions and further input was recorded. (Malta Community Meeting Notes linked below)
During this trip, AERO scheduled meetings with Bear Paw Meats, Sleeping Buffalo Greenhouse, Hinsdale’s Agriculture Educator, Malta’s Farm to School program, Brookside Woolen Mill, Hi-line Kitchen and Processing center, and Wasson Farm & Ranch to gather additional input and make connections to producers in this portion of Montana. The diversity of the region in terms of producers’ geography, agricultural practices, and community-building techniques highlighted a need for additional capacity and input from the RPT chair, Jackie Heinert, AERO’s Local Food Systems Coordinator. Following the community meeting and tours, Jackie interviewed additional producers and business owners in the region to ensure the information gathered was far-reaching and thorough.
- MFEI Community Meeting Notes – Malta Region
- Wickes Farm – Mark Wickes Notes
- Farver Farms – Shauna Farver Notes
- Hinsdale K-12 Ag Teacher – Patti Armbrister email
As part of the planning process, there have been many solutions suggested for solving the concerns and challenges, and these have been documented for future consideration in the Regional Summary Document (link here)
This region has experienced numerous challenges in carrying out the objectives of this project. The main issue has been identifying members that have the capacity to commit to meetings and the project due to their geographical distance from each other, and work, family, and community commitments. In Montana’s rural communities, producers often serve on planning boards, participate in school activities, and have steady production schedules that preclude additional meetings. In sharing the project and planning process with regional producers, AERO has struggled with communicating the planning process steps and language lined out in the grant. Many producers in the region do not recognize when work they are already doing is fulfilling those steps, and AERO has been ineffective in conveying the value of their current contribution in Montana’s food system. This has added unanticipated RPT time to make direct contacts to explain the grant and planning process. Additionally, being physically located 5 hours from this region has prevented AERO from direct contact with producers in all the small communities.
Discussions about a late-winter follow-up community meeting have begun, and AERO will be continue to be involved in ongoing discussions and planning.
At our first Steering Committee meeting we identified the following:
- One field advisor, Eric Bergman, would not be able to fulfill his role. Since the WSARE application was filed, he took a position with the Great Falls Food and Agriculture Development Center, which presented a conflict of interest. While still personally invested in the work of this project, it was necessary that he step down as a field advisor. AERO will work to keep Eric in the loop regarding our progress.
- The Billings region, that was identified as a project area, is not a good fit for this funding. With input from our field advisor for that region, Tom Tschida, we reached out to Northern Plains Resource Council regarding a food hub that was being established in the Billings area. Upon extensive examination with Tom and NPRC, it was determined that the plans for the food hub in Billings were far enough along that a planning project such as ours, with an intention of producing a strategic plan for the region, would not be a good use of resources or capacity. We contacted WSARE and gained permission to explore Bozeman as an alternate location that would be better suited to our project opportunity.
- Brooke Bohannon, and the North Flathead Valley region were excited and ready to get involved. They had a strong group identity formed already. However, the inclusion of Browning in this region was not appropriate. There is one producer working and living in the Flathead that makes deliveries to the Browning region, and AERO has a strong relationship with him, but he is currently the only link connecting these two distinct food economies. This group determined that Scott (the producer) would continue to be a part of their group, but that they would focus on developing a strategic plan for the North Flathead Valley specifically, correctly asserting that Browning has its own food economy with distinct challenges from their own. The group estimates that the best way to assist surrounding economies like Browning, is to concentrate on developing a robust food economy that addresses their specific issues.
- Thayne Mackey leads our Malta region as our Field Advisor. He assembled a Regional Planning Team of invested stakeholders that reside within a two hundred mile area. This reflects the many miles of highway that connect sparse populations in Central and North-Central Montana. The miles between the members on this Regional Planning Team make this group particularly unique with the challenge of creating opportunities for in person meetings. The Malta team has convened mostly by telephone, with the majority of the interactions taking place between two or three members at a time.
Between the first Steering Committee meeting and April of 2018, each of our regional groups have made significant strides within their Regional Planning Teams:
- Kate and Ian McLean serve as co-Field Advisors for our Helena region and have assembled a diverse group of stakeholders for their Regional Planning Team including farmers, a rancher, a produce department manager, and the director of the local food pantry. Some of the team members had not met each other prior to the first Regional Planning Team meeting and the growing relationships between this group have been valuable in and of itself over the past few months. The group has identified common challenges in the region, the biggest one being the lack of existing farm production in the Helena Valley. The team meetings have produced creative brainstorm sessions highlighting possible foci for the group such as farm land accessibility, a farm incubator program, potential demand data and beginning farmer education programs to name a few.
- Our ‘new’ regional focus in the Bozeman community has resulted in a fruitful partnership with the Open & Local group, with Kate Wright, the liaison between their Steering Committee and our MFEI Steering Committee. Open & Local is a growing network of professionals and community members working to strengthen the Gallatin Valley’s local food economy and conserve open space. Over the past several months, AERO staff and Kate have had regular phone meetings, discovering both the parallel paths the groups are on as well as the opportunities to learn from each other’s process, group dynamics, meeting topics an structure, and much more. An Open & Local meeting in early March 2018 helped shape the first community meeting the North Flathead Valley Regional Planning Team organized. We look forward to continuing this unique partnership as we move forward in planning regional food economies around state.
- In the North Flathead Valley, the Regional Planning Team held their first community meeting in early April 2018, attracting almost 40 participants ranging from farmers and ranchers to educators and nutrition experts to interested community members. The Regional Planning Team members did an excellent job facilitating small group conversations and sharing identified common topic threads with the entire room. Next steps have been identified by the Regional Planning Team and a timeline has been created for the next few months, both of which have been communicated to the community meeting attendees.
- Similar to the North Flathead Regional Planning Team, the Malta team has assembled a group of mostly farmers who are leading their planning process. Their conversations identified early on the largest challenge in their region – distribution miles in between communities. Other important topics identified by the group include growing more food in the region and the desire to process more local food as opposed to shipping it far away for processing. The group shared resources and potential strategies related to Farm to School programs and existing marketing tools.
The Steering Committee meeting in November 2018 took place during a pivotal point in the grant. Each region had held one community meeting by that time. Each was in a different place of discussion and planning with their RPTs regarding both the scheduling of future community meetings and the structure and content development of those meetings. In preparation for the November SC meeting, AERO provided examples of strategic plan models from other parts of the country. We reviewed the expectations and time frame for the development of the strategic plan, highlighting different options for approach as we emphasized the importance of the plan needing to fit the individual needs of each region. An understanding was met within the SC that the regional strategic plans need to be created so they are useful to stakeholders in that region long after the MFEI planning stage concludes.
During our November SC meeting, the group also began discussing the objective of showcasing ten stories that capture how this project and process have impacted participants. AERO has produced several similar publications during recent years, examples can be found here and here. We shared drafted interview questions with SC members and encouraged ongoing input during this process. SC members helped brainstorm distribution channels for the finished publication.
As part of our communication plan, an honest discussion took place about the MFEI forum and other tools regional groups were using to date. Consistent feedback on the forum can be summarized into two categories; user experience and familiarity. Stakeholders have found the forum to be difficult to use due to the clunky nature of navigating through menus and submenus. Secondly, directing individuals to it has been a learning curve, as they were unaware of its existence and purpose prior to this grant. We’ve found that interested community members already have well established methods of communication preferences such as facebook or email listservs. One SC member brought up the question of what happens to the communication channels once the MFEI planning phase is over? They suggested that the management of the public communication should be at the regional level, since future planning and project execution will happen within that more local framework once the WSARE planning grant concludes. The group agreed that AERO websites would be an appropriate place to store tangible products such as the regional strategic plans as well as general resources.
Over the course of the first six months of the grant, we held one Steering Committee meeting by phone in November 2017 and two in person meetings, in January and March 2018. Steering Committee meeting notes can be found here. We have successfully identified Regional Planning Teams in three regions: North Flathead Valley, Helena, and Malta. Regional Chairpersons have been secured in all three of the above-mentioned regions while roles have been reviewed within Regional Planning Teams (WSARE-Role-Descriptions). Altogether, we’ve held eight Regional Planning Team Meetings (notes can be found here), one in Malta, three in Helena, and four in the North Flathead Valley. One community wide meeting has taken place to date and that was in the North Flathead Region in early April 2018.
As part of our communication plan, the Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) online forum has been populated with a community meeting agenda, including project goals, contact information, and identified next steps. We’ve also posted a number of resources that relate to regional food planning. After the North Flathead Community Meeting took place, a new farmer in that region reached out to us stating that they found MFEI in an internet search and that they’d like to attend the next community meeting with the specific goal of tapping into a network of other farmers in the region.
Our Strategic Planning Process was successfully implemented during our January and March Steering Committee meetings as we reviewed the Whole Measures tool, developed the regional meeting format, and discussed outreach methods. We found that our Field Advisors processed the tool in ways that were unique to both their geographic locations as well as their individual business ventures. The discussion of the tool as a group allowed the Field Advisors the time and space to envision how the tool would be used within their respective Regional Planning Teams.
The North Flathead region held their first community meeting in April 2018. They promoted the meeting through channels such as the MFEI Forum, email invites, individual phone calls and in person conversations. We found that individual phone calls and in person conversations were most effective in acquiring RSVPs for the community meeting. Stakeholders had questions about how they fit into the regional food economy and what expectations were established for stakeholder participation in the community meeting. The interactive nature of phone conversations and in person meetings allowed for a more meaningful exchange, which led to increased interest and quicker buy-in from stakeholders. Almost 40 invested stakeholders filled the room for the groups first large community meeting, making it a successful turnout. At the conclusion of the meeting, surveys were distributed to all participants. An online version of the survey was also created and shared via email, intending to reach attendees who weren’t able to complete the hardcopy before they left the meeting.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Over the past few months, both the Helena and Malta regions have held their first community meetings. About thirty community members attended the Helena meeting, ranging from producers to non profit staff, to state Department of Agriculture representatives, to home gardeners and several interested community members. Attendees made new connections and contributed meaningfully to the small group discussions. The summary of challenges and regional needs expressed at the meeting mirrored the conversations previously had by the RPT. In anticipation of the first community meeting for this region, the Helena RPT created a flier to hand out at the local farmers markets as well as other in person meetings. The flier was also emailed out to a target invite list of potential stakeholders including chefs, grocery stores, distributors, and school administrators. At the community meeting, RPT members presented a PowerPoint presentation to guide the room through the MFEI process and the agenda for the meeting. Overall, the RPT was very pleased at how the first community meeting went, although the absence of certain stakeholders was felt. In response, the RPT decided to create an additional survey with the goal of capturing input from more voices in between the first and second community meetings. About twenty surveys were completed and the RPT felt that this was a worthwhile effort. A copy of the survey questions can be found here.
In the Malta region, the first community meeting was intentionally designed to take place after a Farm to Table dinner at our Field Advisor’s farm. This allowed attendees to tour the property prior to the event, providing an opportunity to see some of the future impacts of this project, namely increased vegetable production in the region and subsequent value added opportunities for those products to extend the number of months they can be consumed regionally. The outreach for the community meeting was conducted through phone invites, emails, and a facebook event. About fifteen community members attended the event, traveling from across the hi-line community.
As we began recruiting our Regional Planning Teams, we created a one page document describing the role responsibilities of the Field Advisors and Regional Chairpersons. This helped clarify expectations for both our Steering Committee members as well as our Regional Planning Team participants. In preparation for the North Flathead Community meeting, their Regional Planning Team created several educational tools including a one page handout of the project description and a PowerPoint presentation which guided the community meeting visually as the Regional Planning Team facilitated the conversation. AERO’s regular communication to our membership includes a quarterly newsletter which features articles on sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and conservation, community building and detailed descriptions of upcoming AERO events. In our Summer 2018 issue, we featured a story on our North Flathead Field Advisor, Brooke Bohannon. This story can be found in the Success Stories section of this report.
As previously described in this report, the first community meeting that took place was in the North Flathead region. The meeting attracted almost 40 attendees and provided a space for regional food advocates to catch up with long time friends as well as meet new stakeholders connected to the food system. The Regional Planning Team guided the room as they discussed common challenges and ideas for solutions in groups of six to eight people. In addition to that community meeting, eleven workshops have transpired over the past several months in the form of Steering Committee and Regional Planning Team meetings. The locations and frequency of those meetings are described in the Research section of this report.
As we reflect on education and outreach efforts thus far, we’ve noticed a spectrum upon which our Regional Planning Teams have fallen regarding their capacity and interest to self organize. Our North Flathead Valley Team has been very well organized and motivated from day one, creating a robust invite list for the community meeting, following up on invites with in person conversations and developing educational tools as a team, with minimal input needed from AERO staff. This success can be partially attributed to the high concentration of regional food stakeholders in the North Flathead Valley as well as the established connection our Field Advisor had to Regional Planning Team members long before the MFEI project began. We’ve realized that having a well functioning Regional Planning Team such as this cuts down on the work required from AERO staff and we have experienced the different needs from the three different Regional Planning Teams. With that experience, we have tailored our needed support to each team accordingly as we continue with education and outreach activities.
Looking towards the first quarter of 2019, Malta, Helena and the North Flathead regions are planning their second and third community meetings and preparing for the next SC meeting in March.
An increase in knowledge, awareness and skills about sustainable agricultural topics, practices, strategies and approaches (per the WSARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey)
There are three project outcomes that will define success over the course of this grant; our regional strategic plans will be informed by the regional planning teams, the most essential regional challenges and needs will be identified, and the WSARE peer to peer learning network will share our project experiences through our reporting and outreach efforts. Over the past year, the Steering Committee and Regional Planning Team members have built trust and worked well together. We have seen unified visions starting to form in each region as input is collected from stakeholders and Regional Planning Team meetings are taken as opportunities to refine and prioritize that input. As the group identity strengthens over the period of the grant, regions have begun discussing what sustainability looks like once the grant concludes. Our Field Advisors recognize the need to set up a structure which can carry the momentum well beyond October 2019.
Farm to Table Dinner in Malta
To entice stakeholders to attend the first community meeting in Malta, the regional Field Advisor organized a Farm to Table Dinner prior to the meeting. The meal showcased many local ingredients including Montana beef and lamb from Bear Paw Meats, feta cheese from Flathead Lake, melons from Joplin, and even Chocolate Rum from Stonehouse Distillery in Winston. Flour, sugar, eggs, garden vegetables and herbs were provided by Hi-Line Kitchen Processing and Garden Center, a local business. The dinner highlighted the local food in the region and provided an inspiring example of what a local food system can actually produce. The strategy proved successful as many attendees stayed on site to participate in the MFEI conversations.
Bozeman Community Integrated into Steering Committee
At the November Steering Committee Meeting, our Bozeman Field Advisor was able to meet the rest of the Steering Committee in person. After months of conversations between AERO and the Open & Local Committee, it was tremendously valuable to have everyone in the same room. The Bozeman Field Advisor gave a presentation on the Open & Local formation, focus, and current efforts. The Steering Committee is now set up to be at its strongest for the remainder of the grant period. We look forward to capturing more successes within the Steering Committee meetings in 2019.
AERO Expo Sunday Meeting design, participation, and next steps
At AERO’s annual meeting, around 40 people participated in a 4 hour conversation centered on the core question, “What needs to be done to build robust local / regional food systems in Montana?” The discussion was facilitated using the Open Space method, and included both people who were familiar with the MFEI project (RPT members and community members who had attended the community meetings), and people who were not yet familiar with MFEI.
Some groups specifically discussed the value of the MFEI project to their region and worked on fleshing out specific ideas that had interest among the participants, and others brought up topics that mimicked or overlapped with the needs identified by the regional planning teams, thereby reinforcing that those groups are, indeed, accurately selecting the issues that matter to their regions.
In 2019, AERO will follow up with the participants of this Open Space discussion, encouraging them to take on projects, and connecting them with future MFEI meetings as necessary.
Free the Seeds in 2019
Free the Seeds is a community powered fair in Kalispell, MT approaching it’s fourth year of existence. It consists of a seed swap, workshops, and a vendor space for farms, non profit organizations and garden/agriculture related businesses. This all volunteer based event attracts around 1,600 attendees each year. Donning a different theme for the event each year, Free the Seeds in 2019 will be focused on the region’s food economy. This is a tremendous success for the Montana Food Economy Initiative. Not only has AERO invited the WSARE Steering Committee (SC) members to attend this event, but we’ve scheduled our next Steering Committee meeting to take place the day after the event concludes. SC members will also have an opportunity to share their MFEI experience in the form of a community conversation, as an official workshop at the Free the Seeds fair. In addition, the third community meeting for the North Flathead Region will take place as a fair workshop, reaching a broader audience due to fair popularity.
AERO published two MFEI based articles in our quarterly newsletter highlighting regional progress around the state. The articles are on page six here and here. Through the newsletter, we have been able to reach a much broader AERO audience, which has sparked informal conversations about MFEI throughout the year. We look forward to continuing to highlight MFEI progress in our newsletter as well as other communication tools.
Vegetable Farmer from Northwest Montana:
AERO’s Montana Food Economy Initiative, assisted by a grant from Western SARE, supports the development of a regional food economy through the use of value-based supply chains and information sharing. This statewide, producer-led project includes regional planning teams in four Montana regions: Great Falls/Helena; North Flathead Valley/Browning; Bozeman; and Malta. Below, a member of one of our Regional Planning Teams describes their progress:
The North Flathead Valley Regional Planning Team (RPT), composed of producers, seed savers and food access advocates, convened several times this winter. The objective of this regional planning team is to develop a plan that strengthens our regional food system, starting by identifying solutions to local sustainable agricultural issues. The RPT met four times before holding a larger community meeting. This larger meeting of nearly 40 attendees gathered at the Kalispell Museum at Central School and included stakeholders representing many sectors of our regional food system including executive chefs, educators, meat processors, a dairy operation, orchardists, food access hospital employees, and vegetable producers, just to name a few. The goal of the meeting was to present what a regional food system is, build relationships between those in the room, identify opportunities for growth and create regional solutions. (Helpful hint: A Regional food system is a system that integrates food production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal to enhance the environment, economic, social and nutrition health of a community – with an implied sustainability component.
A major outcome of the community meeting included two identified opportunities to strengthen our regional food system. The first is the need for more and improved education and marketing on the topic of local food availability and impact. As a community, we need to educate consumers – our neighbors! – on the socioeconomic benefits of a regional food system, which includes things like more vibrant, collaborative communities; better health and nutrition; land stewardship; attention to accessibility, equity, and social justice; local education and empowerment; food security; community resilience; improved quality of life; local investments in economies and jobs. We also need to better communicate where individuals can access local foods – so people know both where and how to purchase locally grown items.
Secondly, there are bureaucratic issues that prohibit access to local foods. For example, a local dairy’s milk is not WIC approved because it is not fortified. As we gathered into small groups led by members of the RPT, we discussed this issues, presented them to the group, and discussed future plans to meet and continue these conversations. Many folks lingered long after the close of the meeting to make connections and speak with their neighbors (while snacking on some locally provided veggies and goodies). Moving forward, the Regional Planning Team as well as several members who attended the community meeting, intend on meeting several more times throughout the summer to start working developing a plan on how to address the two identified opportunities. To stay connected with what is happening with the North Flathead Valley RPT and MFEI in general, be sure to visit the MFEI website and forums at www.mtfoodeconomy.org
We can have a food system that strengthens our communities, rather than degrades them – that is sustainable rather than industrial, regional rather than global. Imagine a community where the food system improves or alleviates social, economic and environmental issues rather than creating them.