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).
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.
Since that first Steering Committee meeting 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.
To date, we have 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
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, we’ve conducted one community presentation to date, taking place 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 will tailor our needed support to each team accordingly as we move forward with education and outreach activities.
Looking ahead, the Helena and Malta Regional Planning Teams are planning their first community meetings to take place in the summer of 2018. In September 2018, our MFEI Steering Committee will meet with the Open & Local Steering Committee in Bozeman for a joint event between the two efforts. Also in the fall of 2018, we plan on featuring another MFEI Success Story in our quarterly SunTimes publication. We look forward to collecting feedback from membership as these stories are shared, directly connecting the MFEI project to more Montanans across the state.
An increase in knowledge, awareness and skills about sustainable agricultural topics, practices, strategies and approaches (per the WSARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey)
Looking ahead at the projected impact of the Montana Food Economy Initiative, we’ve identified at least two main outcomes that will positively affect agricultural sustainability; our Regional Food Network Strategic Plans (RFNSP) and the strengthened group identity around regional food systems in Montana. Our RFNSPs will identify barriers in each region, compile resources needed to move forward, and develop ownership within each community. The results of the RFNSPs will be presented in each region, announced through various online platforms and shared with broader agricultural audiences at conferences, meetings, and workshops. The RFNSPs will contribute to a growing body knowledge of regional food system work in Montana. They will connect stakeholders across regions in ways that wouldn’t happen without this research.
The second outcome of strengthened group identity is designed to develop steadily with each Steering Committee, Regional Planning Team, and Community meeting that takes place over the course of the program timeline. As we continue to bring stakeholders with common food system values together in the same room, an identity forms and bonds the group toward a unified vision. Realizing success early with the North Flathead Community meeting, we will apply what we learned during that process to the other Regional Planning Teams. The Helena region identified early on in their planning process that there was a lack of growers in the valley. As their Regional Planning Team formed, stakeholders realized that some of the existing growers weren’t aware of each other’s businesses. Having them in the same room during this planning process has been quite valuable in strengthening the network of existing producers. The MFEI strengthened group identity will grow both within each region and across the regions, the Steering Committee members serving as liaisons for their respective regions.
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.