Montana Food Economy Initiative

Final report for OW17-026

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2019
Grant Recipient: The Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO)
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


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 was the focus of the AERO Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) project, a statewide project initiated in 4 regions of Montana, located around Helena, North Flathead Valley, Bozeman (Gallatin Valley), and Malta (Hi-Line), 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 4 geographically diverse producers who will act as Field Advisors (FA) and one liaison to Bozeman’s Open and Local Steering Committee, to comprise an MFEI Steering Committee (SC). These Field Advisors previously demonstrated leadership in exploring the building of their local food systems. Each served two capacities: at the regional level as field advisors and at the state level, as Steering Committee members. The Steering Committee held four meetings spaced throughout the duration of the project, sharing what they learned with each other. The Steering Committee helped plan, draft, review, and edit regional food network plans in 3 of the 4 regions; and participated in the final evaluation, summary analysis, and report of the MFEI project. FAs participated on a Regional Planning Team; participated in their regional food network planning meetings; and brought regional research results back to the steering committee to educate and inform other regional efforts.

AERO worked with these 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 experience 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 because it creates a statewide approach to regional efforts and connecting these efforts through MFEI, with strategic planning, and personal network building. As regions plan, AERO facilitated knowledge transfer and resource sharing among regions, including potential roadblocks and opportunities for development, and ensured each region educated each other, thereby avoiding “reinventing the wheel.” 

Montana is a large state with many variables from infrastructure to climate affecting regions differently. These variables outline 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 co-create improvements in their regional food economy.

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 identified a producer need and addressed it through a community based regional food system approach, which produced wider solutions including processing, storage, and expanded markets to schools and institutions. The MFEI project enabled other regions to understand and capitalize on the existing and future economic development potential of their regional food system, and devise plans to achieve similar successes as our Western Montana regional food system. Our western Montana colleagues developed their Strategic Plan using a values-based, community oriented tool similar to the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (Whole Measures CFS) model, 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 developed relationships and regional food network strategic plans using the same tool when communities found it useful to examine current conditions, explore regional roadblocks, learn from other regions’ efforts, and identify the next best steps to grow the regional food system. Each region gathered baseline qualitative data to measure the region’s food system growth and allow them to return to the participatory process to evaluate their progress as they implement their plans. With Steering Committee members, AERO shared these strategic plans at presentations in each region, in an online report, through AERO outreach channels, and various online mediums, including the AERO website. While Montana ranks in the top 10 in the United States for food production, 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 helped 4 Montana regions expand sustainable agricultural opportunities through fostering the relationships that are the foundation of a statewide regional food network, and by facilitating regional teams in the creation of sustainable regional food system strategic plans.

Project Objectives:
  1. Convene the Project Team and hold introductory meeting: The MFEI Steering Committee (SC), 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 – March 2019).
  2. Promote and Monitor Montana Food Economy Initiative website ( 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 2019).
  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 – October 2017).
  4. Organize Formal and Informal Regional Planning Teams: PI & SC create 3 Regional Planning Teams (RPT) of FA, producers, consumers, food purchasers, nonprofits and community partners and engage with current Open & Local group operating in the Gallatin Valley; PI meet with RPTs and explain process, content and identify roles; PI and FAs schedule 2 or more planning meetings in each region (July 2017 – October 2017).
  5. Promote regional community 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 and FA facilitate 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. PI, RC, or FA records meeting notes / 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 strategic plans. RPTs review with PI and submit draft strategic plans to SC. SC will summarize and analyze plans from each region and develop strategic plans ready for final community review (April – September 2019).
  8. Facilitate community education: Hold final community meeting in each region and provide strategic plans; 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 regional strategic plans and write Final Project Report: Add additional information including producer and participants attendance, demographics, producer information-sharing successes and and whether a common understanding has been achieved (January – September 2019).


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Gretchen Boyer (Educator)
  • Bonnie Buckingham (Educator)
  • Steffen Rasile (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Steering Committee (SC) Formation and Engagement:

The first SC meeting was a preparation and introduction meeting, held in November 2017, via phone conference. AERO staff (PI) organized and facilitated this call, and the agenda included brief introductions of each SC member, an overview of the MFEI project, a description of Western SARE, how the funded proposal advances the MFEI project, and a review of the grant timeline and activities. The PI also explained the expectations and roles associated with the project, and the team agreed on the best method of communication for them - emails and follow up phone calls as necessary. The team also debated and agreed on a note taker for future meetings, and a process for sharing those notes with the committee (email). Finally, the committee was tasked with working with AERO before the next meeting to identify a Regional Chairperson (RC) for their region.


The next SC meeting was in person, at the AERO offices based in Helena (January 2018). The agenda included time spent reviewing roles and responsibilities in detail, familiarizing the committee with the Whole Measures CFS assessment tool, and answering logistical questions about the execution of the grant objectives. Spending time reviewing this information as a group was necessary and useful because although SC members reviewed the grant proposal ahead of time and committed to participating, some were unclear about the details of their roles. AERO facilitated the creation of a roles chart that improved understanding and was referred to over the course of the project. The SC also set preliminary (broad) dates for the remaining 4 meetings. Some of those dates were altered as the project moved forward, as SC members were busy with the needs of their businesses, especially during harvest seasons. 

At this meeting, the group identified the following realities that necessitated adaptations to the original project approach:

  • 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.  
  • The Billings region, originally identified as a project area, was not a good fit for this funding. With input from our field advisor for that region, Tom Tschida, AERO reached out to Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) regarding a food hub (Yellowstone Valley 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 original inclusion of Browning in this region was not appropriate. There is one producer working and living in the Flathead Valley that makes deliveries to the Browning region, and although AERO has a strong relationship with him, he is currently the only link connecting these two distinct food economies. This group determined that 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, 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 the Hi-Line region as 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 Hi-Line team convened mostly by telephone, with the majority of interactions taking place between two or three members at a time.


The third SC meeting was held on 11/14/18 at AERO offices in Helena. The agenda covered introductions & an ice breaker, a review of the grant timeline and regional progress reports shared by each member. In addition, AERO facilitated a discussion about project communications, and in particular, the effectiveness of the Montana Food Economy Website forum for exchange of information. AERO also provided examples of regional food network strategic plans as resources for the group to review. The group then determined their next steps and brainstormed audiences to target for presenting final strategic plans, and the final project report.


Because the SC is comprised of producers, harvest season was a busy time of year and meeting in person or remotely via phone during harvest season was not feasible. Groups thinking about pursuing a similar project to ours would benefit from recognizing this necessary accommodation, to ensure the benefits of producer-led models of engagement are protected while making it as easy as possible for busy producers to participate in a meaningful way. The group jointly agreed to adjust timelines and tasks to alleviate this time conflict, and as a result, one of the regions (Flathead Valley), elected to front load their work in favor of fulfilling the majority of their roles and responsibilities ahead of schedule.


Final SC meeting was held on 9/22/19 in person at the home of one of the SC members. The agenda included regional updates and news, and summarizing the on-the-ground outcomes, takeaways, and catalyzed ideas that are a result of this project. The committee also outlined the process for review of the Western SARE final report prior to submission, and identified the next steps each region would pursue, once the grant period ended. Finally, the SC took time to reflect on participating in this phase of the MFEI project, and provided feedback on what went well, what unexpected challenges they faced, what suggestions they had for AERO and for each other as the MFEI moves forward, and what outcomes and impacts they felt were attributable to the project.


Regional Planning Team (RPT) Formation and Engagement: 

As SC members (acting as Field Advisors) began their task of working with AERO to congregate their regional planning teams, it became apparent that the rigid roles laid out in the grant application would need to be adapted to each region. In addition, while the RPTs had concrete goals laid out for the summer months, the actual experience of summer productivity varied quite a bit from region to region. In particular, 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 Hi-Line 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 played a significant role in the outcomes and timeline of this project. Below are details about how each region adapted the roles of the grant proposal to fit their needs and capacity:



SC members, in their role as Field Advisors (FAs), convened a rotating group of between 4 and 7 individuals in the Helena region with interest and ideas for improving the regional food system. The majority of the RPT are producers. They met seven times over the course of the grant period, including two larger community meetings that garnered a wider audience from more diverse representatives of the regional food system. These meetings were sometimes conducted in person, sometimes via phone conference. This region, along with the Hi-Line region, faced challenges in developing a group identity, as some RPT members were not familiar with each other previously, and many members, while enthusiastic about the need to improve the regional food economy, had limited / inconsistent ability to participate in regular meetings and outside research. As discussed in the results and discussion section, the project team came to view this reality as a feature of a developing community of changemakers.


North Flathead Valley

The North Flathead Valley FA member was able to quickly rally seven RPT members who met nine times over the grant period, including two larger community meetings. This region benefits from longer-established relationships and broad recognition within the community of the importance of working together to achieve sustainable regional food systems. The FA for this region was able to bring together a RPT that was already familiar with one another, easily establishing rapport and trust within the group. These group dynamics proved essential in maintaining consistent participation by the RPT, garnering useful results from their work. The RPT also utilized established community gathering events, such as Free the Seeds, to engage the larger region in a meaningful way. 


Gallatin Valley

The  Open & Local (O&L) group formed on a similar timeline as the MFEI Steering Committee formation. 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. 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. Instead, an O&L Steering Committee member, Kate Wright,  acted as an O&L Field Advisor/”Liaison,” participating in the SC meetings and meeting regularly with AERO staff in person or by phone to share updates on O&L efforts in Gallatin County, as well as to brainstorm resources including upcoming trainings with food systems leaders, and discuss common challenges. 



The Hi-line region stretches across six counties, with sparse populations, food deserts, and sometimes harsh climate conditions. While there is a core group of people within this region who are dedicated to improving their region’s food economy, they are spread out and isolated from one another much of the year. AERO’s prior presence in this region was not as pronounced as in other regions, and AERO relied on the Field Advisor (FA) in Malta, MT to help introduce our organization and the MFEI project to community members. Given the arduous nature of gathering in person in this region, and the lack of history working together, attempts to engage a regular cohort of RPT members were unsuccessful. Instead, the RPT in this region is better described as an intermittent collection of individuals who agreed to informally share their thoughts, ideas, concerns, and suggestions for improving their regional food system, relying on the FA and AERO to collect these contributions into a meaningful report they could use in the future. The FA and this intermittent collection of changemakers were successful in gathering a broader audience together for a farm-to-table dinner, whereby additional residents participated in an MFEI community meeting, sharing insights, asking questions, and building rapport.


Regional Planning Team Progress:

Between the first Steering Committee meeting and April of 2018, each of our regional groups made significant strides within their Regional Planning Teams:


Kate and Ian McLean served as co-Field Advisors for our Helena region and 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 the members of this group were valuable in themselves. Using the Whole Measures CFS tool, the group identified common challenges in the region, especially the lack of existing farm production in the Helena Valley. The team meetings 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.


North Flathead Valley

In the North Flathead Valley, the Regional Planning Team held their first community meeting in early April 2018, attracting 64 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 were identified by the Regional Planning Team and a timeline was created for the next few months, sharing both with the community meeting attendees.


Gallatin Valley

O&L members met regularly during this period, focusing on strengthening the Gallatin Valley’s local food economy and conserving open space. The O&L Field Advisor communicated regularly with AERO, sharing regional updates.  The communications also included fruitful conversations between AERO and O&L on observations and common experiences in supporting a community coming together around a local food economy, sharing supportive information regarding group dynamics, meeting topics and structure. 



Similar to the North Flathead RPT, the Hi-Line RPT 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 between communities. Other important topics identified by the group included growing more food in the region and the desire to process more local food regionally instead of shipping it far away for processing. The group shared resources and potential strategies related to Farm to School programs and existing marketing tools.


Between April and December of 2018, each MFEI Region accomplished the following:


Helena’s first community meeting was held 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 to gather additional input from stakeholders that weren’t represented at the first meeting, by designing and distributing 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 by survey takers were similar to those identified at the larger community meeting as well as the RPT meetings held 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) during this period, and the MFEI Field Advisor now serves on the hub’s Advisory Council. A recent survey that the hub disseminated provided additional insight into community needs such as community gathering spaces, better food options and safe places for kids and teens to hang out. The RPT brainstormed future collaboration between MFEI efforts and EHFH, including working on increasing EHFH’s capacity to source food locally, and collaborate with the community gardens to attract new producers to the valley in the future. The Helena RPT outlined the beginning of a structure for their second community meeting planned for the Spring of 2019.


North Flathead Valley

Following their first community meeting in April 2018, the North Flathead Valley RPT turned their attention to growing food for their community. Once the harvest season was complete, the RPT returned to their MFEI goals. This was an important lesson for this region (and for others on the SC), 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 MFEI schedule for the remainder of the year. The RPT members conducted research 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 with each other and refining their focus and goals for the remainder of the MFEI planning grant. The RPT set dates for their second and third community meetings, in February and March of 2019, respectively. The third community meeting coincided with the Annual Free the Seeds Fair in Kalispell, MT. Free the Seeds draws more than 1,000 attendees each year. 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 discussing the values of the group. They agreed that their collective values should be clearly reflected in their strategic plan and guide their writing process. The RPT also discussed how to craft the invitation list for the second community meeting. In order for the data collected at that meeting to be the most meaningful and accurate, the RPT chose a selective and targeted approach to stakeholder engagement which they conducted via phone calls and emails prior to the second community meeting.


Gallatin Valley

AERO staff continued collaborative efforts with Open & Local through 2018, attending workshops, presentations, and local food celebrations - meeting new stakeholders and promoting the MFEI program. The Liaison met the rest of the Steering Committee members in November 2018. She shared Open & Local’s progress with the Steering Committee, providing insight as to how their group decided to formalize their structure as a non profit organization. Open & Local spent two years exploring challenges and priorities in their local/regional food system. Over 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, supporting a community gathering to explore what food collaborations look like in other regions, and assisting them with the development of an action plan. Open & Local concluded that for the near future, their role is best fit to facilitate planning, networking, collaboration and communication within the Gallatin Valley to increase the economic viability of their local food system and increase community members’ understanding of and engagement in the local food economy. 



The Hi-Line region formed 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 a variety of circumstances, so AERO and the FA discussed having AERO’s Local Food Systems Coordinator provide assistance to the RPT. After several discussions, the Local Food Systems Coordinator was put in place as the Hi-Line region’s RPT chair, where she 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, MT. Extension Agents, restaurant owners, school employees, daycare providers, hospital representatives, distributors, butchers, grocery store owners, bulk processors, gardeners, truck gardens, and food bank managers provided feedback, helping the FA determine the most common issues for the region. The concerns they identified included: 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 about the MFEI project, 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. Hi-Line Regional Summary Notes here


During this trip, AERO staff arranged in person meetings and tours of facilities involved in the food system across the region: Bear Paw Meats (processing and distribution), Sleeping Buffalo Greenhouse (geothermal greenhouse and CSA), Hinsdale’s Agriculture Educator (school, root cellar, gardens), Malta’s Farm to School program (school garden), Brookside Woolen Mill (producer), Hi-Line Kitchen and Processing center (processing), and Wasson Farm & Ranch (large-scale production) to gather additional input and build relationships in this region 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 facilitation. Following the community meeting and tours, AERO’s Local Food Systems Coordinator (acting as RC) interviewed additional producers and business owners in the region to ensure the information gathered was far-reaching and thorough.

This region experienced numerous challenges in identifying members that had 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 struggled with communicating the planning process steps and language lined out in the grant proposal. Many producers in the region did not recognize when work they were already doing was fulfilling MFEI tasks and outcomes. Therefore, AERO staff added RPT time to make direct contacts with producers in this region to explain the planning process in detail, and outlining for each how the work they currently do contributes value to the food system and is a needed voice in the creation of a regional food system strategic plan.


Between January and October 2019, Regional Planning Teams completed their MFEI grant commitments, drafted strategic plans, and outlined courses of action and collaboration to pursue after the grant period was complete:

It is important to note that staff turnover at AERO in 2019 necessitated a change of PI and the hiring of a contractor to ensure the SC and the project as a whole continued to receive support and accomplished its goals. The project team invested time and energy in building relationships with the new project members, and reviewed the project process, accomplishments, and challenges to date. AERO selected Kate Wright, the Open & Local liaison from the Gallatin Valley region as the contractor for this project, specifically because of her qualifications as a skilled facilitator, her familiarity with the project, and her familiarity with many FAs and RPT members.



In March 2019, the Helena region conducted a RPT meeting via phone and the FAs attended Western SARE funded FarmLink’s Beginning Farmer Network annual meeting to research the opportunities and strategies for encouraging new producers to farm and sell in the Helena region. From May through August, the FAs worked closely with AERO’s contractor and the rotating RPT members to prepare a draft regional strategic plan, and explored the opportunity to bring “planning for on farm success” trainings to the Helena region as a way to support current and prospective producers in the region. A final community meeting was held in conjunction with an AERO farm tour of KJ’n Ranch and Sheep Mountain Creamery whereby the FAs outlined the strategic plan to the community, and announced the intention to pursue the expansion and support of regional producers as the next immediate goal. FAs participated in presenting and discussing their MFEI project outcomes at the AERO Expo at Montana State University in October 2019.


North Flathead Valley

In mid-February, producers from the MFEI North Flathead Valley region hosted a “sustainable farmer social” at Flathead Valley Community College, introducing Flathead Valley market farmers to the MFEI project and exploring opportunities to collaborate. Eighteen producers attended and, among other discussions, collaborated on bulk-order purchasing of farm supplies. 


The North Flathead Valley region chose to combine their second and final community meeting in March 2019, with a power point presentation on their MFEI work at the annual Free the Seeds event. There were 20 attendees at this presentation (inclement weather impacted attendance). Included in the presentation and provided to Free the Seed attendees at large was a questionnaire to collect demographic information, determine where people get/seek information about local food, identify gaps in their local food system. The RPT had a follow up meeting in April to strategize incorporating the survey feedback collected from 58 respondents into their strategic plan, and to start a conversation about the future of the group once the strategic plan is submitted and the grant period is closed. From May through September, RPT members worked with the AERO consultant to draft their regional strategic plan. In addition, they officially formed as their own entity, selected a name (Glacier FEAST - Farmers and Eaters Advocating Sustainability Together), and clarified their purpose of pursuing their strategic plan goals. In August 2019 the group hosted a Launch Dinner called “Join Us at the Table!” for 110 guests, announcing the group’s intention to build community awareness and help connect the dots in the system by bringing folks to the table from all parts of the local food system. The FA presented the group’s findings and plan at the AERO Expo at Montana State University in October 2019.


Gallatin Valley

When the Open and Local (O&L) steering committee discussed participating in AERO's "Montana Food Economy Initiative" (Dec 2017-Feb 2018), the original plan was for a producer to participate as the region’s Field Advisor because that was how the grant proposal had been written. No producer was identified to fill this role and O&L member, Kate Burnaby Wright, agreed to serve as "Liaison." Because the Gallatin region was already developing cross-sector collaboration that did not follow the MFEI process, but was doing similar work, Gallatin Valley is not an "official AERO-facilitated MFEI region,” but rather a parallel example of similar work to learn from and share with throughout the duration of the project. The Gallatin Valley region "parallel" participation was fruitful; their inclusion supported increased communication across regions. O&L worked collaboratively with AERO staff and SC members to discover how to strengthen local food systems, and both the MFEI project and O&L benefitted from the collaboration process. AERO and O&L intend to continue their collaboration moving forward.

The O&L Strategic Plan is shared with Western SARE and AERO as an example of what this "parallel region" created with a different process. O&L agreed to share their strategic plan in case it is of value to anyone else in Montana trying to do similar work. Open & Local is allowing AERO to share their Strategic Plan as part of a larger vision, to promote regional food system work in all its various forms and to help AERO in its goal of pursuing this work, though it is not considered an outcome of the MFEI project itself. 



In February 2019, the Hi-Line FA and AERO participated in a phone meeting to discuss the upcoming changes in AERO staff, and the impact it might have on the region’s MFEI work. In April, AERO’s contractor traveled to the Hi-Line to meet with the FA and discuss her role as AERO contractor, and how she could assist the Hi-Line region with community meetings and the development of their regional strategic plan. She also attended a Farm to School meeting in Malta, seeking opportunities to build additional sustainable agriculture alliances in the region. AERO’s contractor and the FA communicated via email and phone discussions from May through September to draft the regional strategic plan together and the FA collected additional feedback from community members, store owners, and producers to incorporate into the plan. Prior commitments prevented the FA from attending the last SC meeting in the North Flathead Valley in September. However, the AERO contractor and AERO staff traveled to the Hi-Line in September to meet with the FA and others in the region to discuss the closure of the grant period, the finalization of the region’s strategic plan, and the intention to continue working together in the future.

Research results and discussion:

The results of this project can be categorized into three sections: The development of regional food network strategic plans, the development of useful and meaningful relationships and communications within and across regions, and the reinforcement of the value of region-specific, ground-up approaches to improving food systems. 

Regional Strategic Plans:

Three of four regions have devised regional food network strategic plans, which are accessible via AERO’s website:

Helena Regional Strategic Plan

North Flathead Valley Regional Strategic Plan

Hi-line Regional Strategic Plan

Gallatin Valley Region Plan (although not devised just by producers, at least two producers are on the Open & Local steering committee)

These food network strategic plans are concrete tools, grounded and devised by producers and food systems workers in their specific regions. By crafting them together, each region gained additional knowledge about the opportunities and challenges facing their food system, and the individuals involved in this project are now connected to each other, adding strength to the network connecting food systems to each other throughout the state.


Communications & Relationship Building:

Communications within regions and between regions required considerable effort and energy. Readers interested in replicating or adapting this project should devote time and effort to making personal outreach calls and participating in face to face interactions. While phone calls, video conferencing, and face to face interactions may not be as time efficient as emails or website forum interaction, all SC members reported that they are more effective. Each region’s RPT made efforts to engage people in the project as they interacted with them at other events. Originally, this project built in an online forum via AERO’s Montana Food Economy website, as a method of communication and resource sharing between regional groups. However, over the duration of this project, it became clear that other methods of communication were preferred, and the push to use the forum was eventually abandoned. Specific results of interest include:

  • Forum required a login and password (attempts to remove this barrier caused a deluge of spam to infiltrate the forum); participants were reluctant to have yet another login and password to remember
  • Generally, online “chat” forums, like the one created for this project, are quickly being subsumed by social media platforms, and our regional participants were only marginally involved with social media as a method for staying in touch with each other.
  • Most of the project participants preferred emails, listservs, and face to face interactions to stay in touch with one another.
  • Many of the resources found on the Montana Food Economy website, are also appropriate for AERO’s organizational website. With limited staff capacity, AERO wanted to eliminate redundancy and direct those involved in the MFEI project (as well as those interested in participating in the future), to AERO’s main website, which is currently being revised to improve functionality, as this information is incorporated.

Each FA selected the method that best worked for their RPT and their community for outreach and communications. The SC members met in person or over the phone, and shared their findings with each other primarily in these ways. It is worthy to note that some producers specifically mentioned that their availability to communicate using a computer was limited, especially during the growing and harvest seasons. As a method of showcasing MFEI engagement and efforts to a broader statewide audience, each region’s efforts were showcased in AERO’s newsletter (the Sun Times), which is disseminated quarterly to over 400 AERO members across the state, and in AERO’s monthly e-newsletter. SC members discussed how to continue community engagement within their regions, and suggested that the management of public outreach once the grant period concluded should be at the regional level, since future planning and project execution will happen within that more local framework, and face-to-face interactions are more likely to occur. The group agreed that the AERO website would be an appropriate place to store tangible products such as the regional strategic plans as well as general resources. Finally, this feedback has demonstrated to AERO the importance of our organization’s role in convening regional groups in person regularly, to most effectively exchange information, learn from one another, boost momentum, and build better working relationships between stakeholders within and across regions. AERO’s next step is to adapt our annual Expo to suit this need and convene the regional working groups (adding regions over time). Based on the results of this project, AERO is confident not only in this approach, but in our role as the best and most qualified organization in the state to execute this convening and share out the results, to the benefit of all. We are excited to pursue this vision immediately with SC members, RPT guidance, and additional stakeholders.


The Value of a Region-Specific Approach:

The execution of this project reinforced the value of customizable, region-specific approaches to improving sustainable food systems. The project results emphasize the need for tailored, human-centered strategies to address statewide food systems concerns. Each region required adaptations and recognition of specific regional nuances in order for them to be successful in pursuing practical improvements. Each strategic plan looks slightly different, and the planning processes, discussions, and gathering times also were modified to best accommodate the participants. Each region is on a journey to a sustainable food system and a robust food economy. This project demonstrated that each community needs different support and processes, depending on where they are on their journey.

Participation Summary
105 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

10 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
14 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
6 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

105 Farmers participated
62 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

As the SC reflected on education and outreach efforts periodically throughout the execution of the project, the SC members noticed that the different Regional Planning Team's capacities and interest to self-organize fell across a spectrum. The North Flathead Valley RPT was well organized and motivated from day one, creating a robust invitation list for the community meeting, following up 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 RPT members long before the MFEI project began. Helena and Malta regions needed (and continue to need) additional support and energy dedicated to building a sense of group identity, and a commitment to working together as a team. In the Hi-line region in particular, long distances, low population, harsh weather, and balancing other priorities make creation of a new team challenging.

These are all worthwhile endeavors to invest in, as we see with the North Flathead region that once they are achieved, the results of working together to improve a region’s food system are compounded and robust. Therefore, the MFEI project tailored needed support to each team accordingly as they continued with education and outreach activities.

While forming Regional Planning Teams, AERO 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. 

Community Education & Outreach:


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.  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. 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.  

North Flathead Valley

In preparation for the first North Flathead Valley Community meeting, their Regional Planning Team created several educational tools including a one page handout of the meeting goals and a food system graphic illustrating cross-sector links, and a PowerPoint presentation describing the MFI project and which guided the community meeting visually as the Regional Planning Team facilitated the conversation. The meeting attracted 64 attendees from across the food system, including distributors, consumers, processors and food waste recovery, 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. Two surveys were distributed: a  WSARE survey, filled out by 17 participants, and a Flathead Regional Team survey, filled out by 32 participants.  Of the respondents, over 80% came from non-producer sectors of the food system, 100% gained or increased knowledge, awareness and skills about sustainable agricultural topics, practices, strategies, and approaches as a result of the event, and 82% said they would use the knowledge gained in new or existing educational programs. 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 the Summer 2018 issue, the North Flathead Field Advisor, Brooke Bohannon, contributed a feature story about the MFEI process in her region. This story can be found in the Success Stories section of this report.

Hi-Line Region

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. 

Education & Outreach Tools:

Website: As mentioned in the results section, the interactive forum on the MFEI website was not effective as a tool for communicating with the public or for regional participants to communicate with one another. In addition, given that AERO is the state-wide organization for food system resources, is updating/reformatting its website to highlight this capacity with user-friendly features, and maintains a regular schedule of website updates, it makes more sense to house the MFEI project information, educational tools, and results within AERO’s main website. AERO’s website updates are scheduled for completion by the end of 2019 and will include this report, the regional strategic plans, and all the education tools created for the project.

Conferences: AERO staff, along with FAs, presented MFEI research and findings at the AERO Expo in October 2019 (207 attendees, including 32 producer farms or ranches, and 37 agriculture professionals). MFEI presentations at Expo were recorded, and will be available for public viewing on AERO’s website before the end of 2019. A presentation for the Montana Organic Association annual conference is scheduled for early December 2019 (estimated reach of 50 producers). Upcoming presentations also include Montana Farmers Union (2020, estimated reach 25 producers) and the MT Department of Agriculture National Ag Day (2020, estimated reach 10 producers and 20 agriculture professionals). Regionally, the North Flathead Valley presented their research and findings at the annual Free the Seeds event (over 1,000 attendees). Powerpoint presentation materials can be found in the success stories section of this report.

Coalition Meetings: As a part of the Montana Farm to School Leadership Team, AERO provided regular MFEI project updates to the group, and shared final strategic plans with the Leadership Team to use as a resource and share widely with their networks. In addition, AERO provided regular MFEI updates as a member of the Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition. While the coalition did not meet regularly in 2019, efforts to revive the coalition are underway, and AERO will share the finished strategic plans and this final report with the coalition in 2020, asking partners to share the information with their listservs. The expected coalition makeup for 2020 includes over a dozen organizations (twice as many as in 2018), and therefore the anticipated reach of this effort is nearly 100 producers and agriculture professionals statewide.

Food & Agriculture email listserv: AERO used its statewide food and agriculture email listserv serving 285 Montanans, to convey updates about the MFEI project, and provide invitations for community members to attend regional community meetings in their region. AERO also posted quarterly Sun Times articles showcasing MFEI regional work to the listserv each quarter. 

AERO Media Outreach: The project originally included the production of ten feature articles about regional food network planning meetings and results, highlighting at least one producer for each. AERO worked with SC members to produce six articles for AERO’s quarterly newsletter, the Sun Times, and monthly e-newsletter. In addition, the SC generated an additional list of nine suggested stories & producers to highlight in the future. The North Flathead Valley regional work and resulting new nonprofit, Glacier FEAST, was featured in their local papers, the Flathead Beacon and The Daily Interlake. AERO also used its Facebook page as a social media outlet for outreach to the AERO community and the public more broadly, encouraging participation in community meetings, and sharing outcomes and news from the planning process. 

Follow up Outreach & Education: plans include pursuing the nine additional feature articles as suggested by the SC, and to conduct these interviews at intervals of 3, 6, and 9 months to measure the impact of the research on producers. A survey to all participants in the project will accompany this work at 3, 6, and 9 months, with results included in the feature articles, on the website, and in future conference presentations.

22 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Lessons learned and advice for future project implementers:

  • Regular engagement and connection among FAs as a Steering Committee  was valuable in itself. In addition to supporting RPT engagement, FAs built rapport and relationships with each other, and the conversations borne of SC gatherings produced better results than if AERO had engaged each community separately.


  • It helps to have -- and commit to -- real relationships in a community to facilitate this type of work. An authentic interest and willingness to learn new things about a community and the people there, as well as openness to adjust how you do things, is vital.


  • To support bottom-up food systems, help communities ask the right questions. Learn from community development work. “When you know one community, you know one community.”


  • Be willing to be creative in adapting project structure and how goals will be accomplished. The “how” of project implementation will likely be informed by the group as it evolves and its members come to know one another and engage together.


  • It is hard to measure outcomes/impact without measurables, yet measurables can be hard to define in this work. Supporting cross-sector community conversations and planning clearly has value, but even done perfectly, can be hard to tease apart from what individuals were already working toward or hoping to work toward. Learn how to quantify the impact of organizing/planning support, facilitation, and networking. 


  • Our recorded survey responses for changes in knowledge, skills, and awareness of producers is low. Because leadership for this project shifted between PI, SC, and RPT members, surveys were often forgotten or misplaced. In the future, AERO (and others implementing similar projects) need to strongly emphasize the importance of recording this information formally (vs. the large amount of informal / unrecorded feedback we have that demonstrates that participants did, indeed, gain knowledge, skills, and awareness about sustainable agriculture practices and the needs of their own communities), and assign one person to ensure that the surveys are a component of each meeting / gathering / presentation. In addition, the same person should be responsible for aggregating the survey data, conducting analysis, and providing feedback to the project team.


  • Success requires balancing small, specific “concrete” actions/projects with less tangible work to increase connections, motivation, and planning. Both are essential.


  • To effectively work at the community level takes time. Do not underestimate the time required to effectively establish, maintain and transition relationships, or the value this relationship building provides.


  • Facilitated community meetings were excellent vehicles for gathering community members together and fostering dialogue that would likely have not occurred otherwise. Similarly, the inter-regional conversations and connections made by SC members were also successful in generating novel ideas and building trust. Further, at the AERO 2019 Expo, AERO facilitators led a workshop whereby participants broke out into smaller groups, based on what “pillar” of the food system they represented (production, processing, distribution, consumption, reclamation). Feedback from those who participated in this exercise suggests that it created a needed opportunity for pillar members across the state to engage with one another, who would not have otherwise felt comfortable reaching out to one another. That discomfort is now lifted, and these new relationships will continue to grow. Simply put, these conversations are immensely valuable not only for the intended outcomes they produce, but for the relationships they generate and nurture. These relationships are absolutely vital to the success of regional food systems and of the network that connects them.


  • We recommend that those looking to adapt this project commit to a scaled regional approach to strengthening food systems, as it is at this level where the relationships that contribute to the strength of agricultural sustainability for the entire state are built and nurtured. AERO is committed to continuing researching and working at the regional level to provoke system-wide improvements.
26 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key changes:
  • An increase in knowledge, awareness and skills about sustainable agricultural topics, practices, strategies and approaches (per the WSARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey)

  • An intention to use this new knowledge in existing or new educational programs (per the WSARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey)

  • An intention to share some aspect of the project with a producer (or many producers) not present (per the WSARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey)

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.