Montana Food Economy Initiative

Progress report for RGR20-009

Project Type: Research to Grass Roots
Funds awarded in 2020: $74,759.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2021
Host Institution Award ID: G352-20-W7906
Grant Recipients: AERO; Montana State University Extension; Blackfeet Agriculture Resource Management Plan; A Growing Culture; Montana Institute on Ecosystems; Vilicus Farm, Havre, MT; Two Bear Farm LLC, Whitefish, MT; Quinn Farm & Ranch & Kamut International, Big Sandy, MT; Juedeman Seven Mile Ranch, LLC and Canyon Cattle Co, Montana; Craig Iron Pipe, Blackfeet Rancher
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


AERO’s MFEI is dedicated to strengthening the network of Montana community food systems to ensure producer  sustainability and resilience. Previous MFEI cohorts (WSARE funded), AERO members, and the 2016 Governors’ Food and Agriculture Summit highlighted lack of coordinated efforts between producers and the other sectors of the food system, diminishing producer viability. MFEI coordinates cross-sector engagement across all parts of the food system (producer, processor, distributor, consumer, recovery) to support critical producer sustainability (MFEI Food System Graphic).  The purpose of MFEI is to facilitate community-level, producer-led projects that (1) develop values-based food systems within communities and (2) connect community food systems in a statewide network. Community-reported outcomes of MFEI will be collected in a state-wide, cross-sector resource hub.


Building on the data gathered in its regional food system development work to date, AERO proposes a two-prong approach to community food system development that is best suited to accommodate the range of capacity in Montana’s rural, often isolated, communities. MFEI accomplishes its goal by training producers and ag professionals in collaborative leadership to strengthen cross-sector relationships. The two prongs are: (1) an “intensive coaching” program designed to engage community stakeholders to self-identify and support change makers in  building a community’s capacity to focus on food system development and cross-sector engagement, and (2) a “grassroots to systems” (G2S) “pick list” of discrete, short-term projects for producers in more established food system communities to lead and which enhance on-farm resilience and cross-sector engagement.


These two strategies build farmers’ collaborative leadership capacity to implement projects at the community level. With support from a farmer/partner advisory board, producers lead development of a cross-sector team, community assessment, project implementation and evaluation, and report at semi-annual MFEI meetings. Producers allied with a cross-sector collaboration make sustainable agriculture in Montana more profitable, resilient, and adapted to climate change.


Project Objectives:

MFEI will increase producer knowledge and skill set in diverse, cross-sector inclusion for on-farm resilience and food system development to: intensive coaching and G2S participants (including producer and community team members), MFEI network meetings, resource hub users, and stakeholder advisory board members. By October 2020 evaluation metrics will demonstrate increased diversity among the advisory board. 


The expanded advisory board will inform inclusive project development, implementation and evaluation processes, such that, by October 2020, at the launch of the expanded pick list of G2S projects, evaluation metrics will demonstrate that the expanded pick list was more responsive to diverse stakeholder needs than the pilot pick list. 


Twelve G2S community teams and coaches will increase awareness of the need for collaboration. These leaders will increase facilitation skills to recruit diverse stakeholders, adapting the advisory board expansion model.


MFEI will increase capacity of 12 producers to lead a G2S project, and teams will report results at the MFEI network meeting and on the AERO hub. One-hundred food system stakeholders will attend MFEI network meetings, of which 51 will be farmers who will express interest in leading a G2S group or coach in her/his community in 2021. Farmers engaged in MFEI projects will increase communication with other farmers and stakeholders from other sectors of the food system.


G2S projects will improve climate adaptation, food system resilience, and/or food equity in Montana at the community and state levels; for example, arrange market mechanisms that pay farmers fairly and increase access to values-based, healthy food, and/or assist farmers in  increasing knowledge of on-farm energy efficiency and renewable energy options.

Forty-nine consumers engaged in cross-sector community work will increase understanding of local foods, including the goals of producers that steward values-based community food production and increase intent to purchase local foods.


Montana sustainable agriculture producers in the 2016-2019 MFEI cohort (funded by WSARE P+P) and AERO Expo 2016-2019 participants identified the following community food system development needs: 

  • Community level facilitation and coalition-building skills
  • Cross-sector engagement for climate adaptation, food system resilience, and food equity 
  • Enhanced cross-sector collaborations for local food economy development

The 2016 Governor’s Food and Ag Summit, stakeholders requested:

  • Connecting producers and agriculture stakeholders in a knowledge-exchange community focused on building agricultural resilience

A statewide MSU Extension needs assessment, with responses from every county and reservation, reported that Montanans identify local food access and understanding as the #3 food and nutrition educational need (publication expected Spring 2020).

These data demonstrate the need for cross-sector community coalitions to engage communities in support of producer sustainability. AERO's 2016-2019 MFEI cohort also identified that a multi-prong approach to community food system development is best suited to accommodate the range of capacity in Montana’s rural, often isolated, communities. Specifically, two regions in that cohort, each comprising geographically isolated communities, identified lack of facilitation and coalition-building skills as the greatest producer barrier to gathering community stakeholders for food system strategic plan development. Regions that succeeded in strategic plan drafting had stakeholder networks ready to engage and work towards common goals.  In these communities the identified need was developing a cohesive voice and cross-sector collaboration for local food economy development.

This MFEI project comprises a two-prong approach to community food system development in Montana.  Prong 1 provides intensive coaching to develop coalition building skills in communities without a strong food system identity, supporting change makers in building their community’s capacity to address food system development and cross-sector engagement. Prong 2, "Grassroots to Systems" (G2S), provides a “pick list” of  short-term farmer-led projects, designed to enhance cross-sector engagement, develop collaborative leadership skills, and build on-farm resilience in communities with a more established food system identity. MFEI trains producers to convene cross-sector stakeholders, find common ground, adopt a G2S project, and implement and evaluate the project’s food system and sustainable agriculture outcomes. 

The Blackfeet Nation, a representative geographically and culturally isolated Montana community, has chosen to partner with AERO for intensive community coaching to implement its Amskapi Piikani Food Sovereignty Strategic Plan. The Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Plan (ARMP) led community development to draft the strategic plan, which has translational application across values-based community food systems. MFEI will support an ARMP leader with intensive coaching resources to implement plan action steps. AERO has the capacity to facilitate coaching with volunteers in  two additional opt-in communities.

MFEI network meetings provide in-person, remote, and online sharing modalities to present project outcomes from the Blackfeet Nation, and other communities opting into coaching or G2S projects. Educational outreach materials from MFEI advisors and community teams including reports, assessment and evaluation tools, training guides, and project descriptions will be collected and shared to enhance on-farm resilience, robust local market, and community-development strategies. 

A producer advisory board, including prior MFEI cohort members, assists with project development, implementation and evaluation.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Loren Cardeli (Educator)
  • Anna Crabtree, PhD - Producer
  • Craig Iron Pipe - Producer
  • Mark Juedeman - Producer
  • Dr. Bruce Maxwell (Researcher)
  • Bob Quinn - Producer
  • Dr. Briana Routh, PhD, RDN, MPH (Educator)
  • Todd Ulizio - Producer
  • Dr. Loren Birdrattler


Educational approach:

MFEI has a values-based approach to education. The values guiding each training, webinar, project plan, and conversation are: producer centrality, consumer engagement, true diversity, boundless collaboration, collective resilience. These values were foundational to the learning processes of farmer and food system Advisory Board education, expanding the Advisory Board into a diverse coalition, and launching and mentoring community projects. The values are synonymous with intended outcomes.

Once the Advisory Board members complete their education, they are equipped to mentor and essentially teach their community teams how to engage in their food systems project to uphold the same values. Specifically, AERO's MFEI has created educational workshops and tools to support diverse coalition building, collective community-centric visioning, group facilitation, and digital storytelling. These skills are essential to carry out the values-based MFEI processes and to share widely the outcomes of community projects.

AERO provided training and support to the Advisory Board and provides on-going support and assessment throughout the project timeline. AERO coordinated AB and coach trainings; project implementation and evaluation; and will host the online resource hub of learning outcomes, including digital stories, project implementation resources & materials, and other project outcomes shared at the MFEI Network Meeting in May 2021, for cross-sector learning and skill enhancement. 

The farmer and food systems Advisory Board mentors engaged in food systems capacity building meetings, facilitation skills training, digital storytelling training, and project planning to guide community project frameworks that are  representative of recognized needs from AB members (producer-centric), inclusive of all food system stakeholders (consumer engagement, boundless collaboration), planned and implemented by a diverse coalition (truly diverse), and elevate community-led solutions for more sustainable and resilient community food systems (collective resilience). 

In practice, Advisory Board members developed community project frameworks that: 

  • Are designed and implemented by the community
  • Harness cross-sector collaboration
  • Foster diversity (social/ecological)
  • Supply communities with local, nutrient-dense and culturally appropriate foods
  • Increase community sovereignty 
  • Are in support of underrepresented folks
  • Foster long term impacts & are  replicable
  • Support local livelihoods
  • Limit external inputs

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Facilitation Skills Workshop

This is a workshop designed for the MFEI Advisory Board Mentors.
The Advisory Board learning objectives are listed below.

To help you better understand your role in the facilitation process with MFEI
To build your facilitation toolbox and techniques
To share and learn from each other’s experiences in facilitation


Please see the attached document to see the session that AERO implemented with the MFEI Advisory Board. MFEI AB Facilitation workshop.pptx

Outcomes and impacts:

Advisory Board mentors will be asked about how they used their facilitation skills in a post-project survey. 

Advisory Board mentors will be facilitating meetings and assisting the community project leaders in facilitating their meetings and projects as well. 

Community Food Systems Project Framework and Meeting Agendas

These are tools created with the the Advisory Board members and AERO staff, intended for use by Community Teams as resources for their initial engagement, implementation, evaluation, and outcome measuring for the Community Food Systems Assessment Project.


Attached is a Project framework, draft meeting agendas, and a coalition building document which includes how to build a coalition, important questions to consider in terms of bringing diversity into a coalition and also how to ensure that all food systems sectors are represented. There are also two draft meeting agendas for upcoming meetings. Eventually there will be 4-5 meeting agendas for this specific project. 

Butte CFSA Outreach Flier_for edit

CFSA Meeting Draft Agenda_ Coalition Building & Collective Vision

CFSA MFEI Project Framework


Outcomes and impacts:

Participants will come away from the Community Food System Assessment knowing how to:

  • Build a coalition that centers diversity
  • Determine success through an evaluation plan
  • Build a story board and create a digital story
  • Gather and use community data to support their food system assessment

Participants will learn to: 

  • Define a Community Food System
  • Conduct and participate in a Community Food System Assessment
  • Identify and assess food systems sectors in their community (production, transformation, distribution/marketing, consumption, recovery)
  • Identify and assess community asset areas related to food systems in their community (education, wellness, equity, policy, economy)
  • Collect and analyze data necessary to support their assessment
Farm to Early Care Assessment

Center providers can use this tool to assess the breadth and depth of Farm to Early Childcare activities.


Farm to ECE Assessment

By completing this assessment, centers can assess their participation in the three pillars of farm to school - gardening, procurement, and education- and opportunities to enhance participation.

Outcomes and impacts:

Centers will identify which activities are associated with each farm to school pillar. They will understand which activities they are currently completing and those that they may want to consider for the future. 

Introduction to Food Systems - Advisory Board Orientation Workshops 1 & 2

Identify shared MFEI values
Plan values-based projects
Describe Montana food systems
Identify characteristics of sustainable projects
Create processes that align with shared values and identify processes evaluation to measure and communicate outcomes

Outcomes and impacts:

Create values-based project frameworks that center MFEI shared values:  producer centrality, consumer engagement, true diversity, boundless collaboration, & collective resilience. 

Provide guidance to project frameworks to identify topics and processes that reflect shared values. Create community project criteria to provide values-based project parameters: Designed and implemented by the community, harness cross-sector collaboration, support underrepresented communities, fosters long term impacts, increases community sovereignty

Mentors practice and teach community teams to build diverse coalitions and establish collective vision for projects Coalition Building & Collective Visioning Meeting Agendas

Design project frameworks with assessment tools, implementation resources, project and process evaluation and outcomes sharing strategies. 5 Project Frameworks

Educational & Outreach Activities

28 Consultations
9 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Online trainings
7 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
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.