Montana Food Economy Initiative

Final report for RGR20-009

Project Type: Local Ed & Demo (formerly RGR)
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 adaptive to a changing climate.

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.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Lored Cardeli (Educator)
  • Dr. Anna Crabtree
  • Mark Judeman
  • Bob Quinn

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Farm to Institution Project: Early Childcare Education Centers Update - Assessment Tool and Digital Story

This entry, including the digital story, is a continuation from the WSARE Progress Report approved on 1/29/21.


MFEI Farm to Early Care Interest form - Community interest form to assess their readiness to begin this project.

By completing this Interest Form, Early Childcare Centers can assess the breadth and depth of their current Farm to Early Childcare activities in the three pillars of Farm to School - gardening, procurement, and education - and discover opportunities to enhance participation. 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.

The digital story highlights three Billings Childcare Centers engaging in group procurement as a way to buy Harvest of the Month foods from local distributors and processors. An NCAT Local Food Specialist, an AERO/MFEI employee, and the Billings Childcare providers developed this digital story to share their experience with buying local products from different Montana food processing and distributing organizations. 

Digital Story: 4 Months of Local Food: Montana Harvest of the Month at Billings Child Care Centers, 2021

Outcomes and impacts:

Over a period of six months, three Childcare Center Directors in Billings, Montana were connected with the MSU Harvest of the Month program and walked through how to use the Harvest of the Month website and corresponding materials in order to develop learning opportunities within their classrooms. These Directors also learned more about Farm to School and how they want to implement or increase this programming in their centers. 

The NCAT Local Food Specialist and AERO/MFEI staff helped the Directors learn about how to increase their buying power by purchasing local food together using Montana processing/distribution organizations. This included how to navigate shared pricing and ordering, delivery coordination with organizations and childcare centers, and storage. The digital story shares more about how this occurred, what this process felt like for the Childcare Center Directors, : including what was challenging about this first effort and shifts they can make to continue using this model successfully in the future.

Montana Food Processing and Marketing Projects

With partnership from the MSU Food Product Development Lab, MFEI community project teams supported market research, food product development, sensory testing, and more to develop food products made with local Montana foods that supported sustainable farming practices and culturally-relevant, healthy diets.


MFEI Montana Food Processing Interest Form - This form was developed to assist communities in determining what they needed to know or have in order to successfully begin one of these MFEI community projects.

The following digital stories intend to show how different areas of the food system came together in new ways to support food production in Montana using sustainable farming practices and culturally-relevant and healthy diets.

1.The Story of Wasna-bite Crackers Development by Genesis Chavez

MSU Food Product Development student, Genesis Chavez, developed a nutritious snack cracker, Wasna-bite Crackers, inspired by pemmican and that is representative of Flathead Reservation traditional foods. The crackers used locally sourced bison, foraged serviceberries, and locally-grown Indian ricegrass. Chavez partnered with the Boys and Girls club of Flathead Valley to taste test the crackers.

2. Lake Trout & Food Security by Brittany Robles

The Native Fish Keepers Incorporated (NFKIs) have been taking the invasive lake trout out of Flathead Lake for years and donating it to local food pantries. Eventually, food pantries hit capacity on accepting fish. In response, the NFKIs, with the support of the MSU Food Product Development Lab, began developing a smoked lake trout product that would be made and sold by a tribal entity on and off the Flathead Reservation. This initiative seeks to increase food sovereignty, increase access to locally sourced fish, and make it into a more user-friendly product to be sold in groceries and restaurants. 

This infographic shows the interconnections of the smoked trout product within its community food system:


3. KAMUT-Brand Khorasan Wheat Fry Bread in Safflower Oil at Rocky Boy by Jason Belacourt & Quinn Organics

Taste Test ballots: 

Jason Belacourt, Rocky Boy Sustainability Director, conducted a taste test for a new Indian taco fry bread recipe in partnership with students at Rocky Boy school. The recipe was a combination of KAMUT-brand khorasan wheat flour grown by Quinn Organics and traditional white flour fry bread. Khorasan wheat is an ancient wheat grain known for its nutrition profile and ease of digestibility. The MSU Food Product Development Lab supported this project by developing a taste test form. 

 4. Bonbon Bouye Project Presentation from AERO Expo November 2021 by Kelsea Hertel

The goal of the MSU Food Product Lab's Bonbon Bouye project is to manufacture and commercialize the Bonbon Bouye peanut nutrition bar in the United States. Bonbon Bouye is a nutritious and shelf stable value-added food product currently being developed for production in four communities in Senegal. The product utilizes crops that are normally lost post-harvest. In addition to helping Senegalese communities build food independence, it will also help to generate income, provide jobs, and strengthen Senegalese economies. By manufacturing and commercializing Bonbon Bouye in the United States, communities and entities in Montana can also benefit from this nutritious product, generate income for community projects related to food sovereignty, and donate a portion of profits to Senegalese farmers to help fund their Bonbon Bouye project. 

Outcomes and impacts:

These digital stories showcase how locally grown/sourced foods can be used to create culturally-relevant and healthy foods. Viewers will hear about the nutrition content in the showcased foods and about how the new food products are produced and taste tested. Specific outcomes of the digital story videos follow. 

Video #1 - Wasna Bite Crackers

  • Cultural relevance of the new product to the community food system
  • Nutritional information about the cracker and the locally-sourced ingredients.

Video #2 - Smoked Lake trout

  • Cultural relevance of the new product to the community food system
  • Serves as a case study for food sovereignty and food enterprise for reservations

Video #3 - Kamut Fry Bread

  • Discusses preparation techniques for using KAMUT-brand flour to make fry bread
  • Shows the connections made between KAMUT-brand khorasan wheat producers Quinn Organics and Dry Fork Farm; Stone Child College, which processed the wheat into flour using a new grain mill on their campus, and the consumers at the Rocky Boy school. Rocky Boy's goal is to grow, process and sell a healthy, value-added product to support the Rocky Boy community and increase food sovereignty in their region.

Video # 4 - Bonbon Bouye 

  • Highlights the partnership between MFEI, the MSU Food Development Lab, and Montana Co-op in Polson, MT to manufacture and commercialize an Indigenous Senegalese nutrition bar, Bonbon Bouye, to be sold in the U.S.
  • Discusses the history of the partnership between the Food Development Lab, MT Co-op, and Senegalese farmers which began in 2019 when Edwin Allan, a Food Development Lab PhD candidate, partnered with Bountiful International to conduct graduate research thesis through MSU’s Team PATH (Promoting Agricultural Transformation Holistically) program 
  • Emphasizes how U.S. product sales will benefit the MT Co-op and Senegalese farmers
  • Shows how the MSU Food Development Lab is working on finalizing recipe development and production processes 
  • MFEI funding was used to support MSU Food Development Lab Research Manager’s time on Bonbon Bouye recipe development, production, and commercialization efforts 
Montana Food Connections Projects

These projects are focused on developing community food systems that increase food security and pay producers and other parties fairly by developing connections between and among local food system sectors (production, processing, distribution, and consumption). With support from an MFEI mentor and community collaborators, MFEI project teams created a pathway for local food from the farm, ranch, or community garden to reach a food pantry, school, or senior center with these goals in mind.


MFEI Montana Food Connections Interest Form -  This form was developed to assist communities in determining what they needed to know or have in order to successfully begin one of these MFEI community projects.

Project #1: Community Carrots with Gallatin Valley Botanical Farm (GVB) and the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) in Bozeman. 

In 2020, GVB Farm grew 2 acres of carrots on their own farm and on land donated for their use during the season. Over 11,000 lbs of carrots were harvested by 100 community volunteers and the local Farm to School program. MFBN volunteers washed and processed the carrots. Half of the 11,000 pounds of carrots were donated to the Bozeman School District for its school meal program and half went to the Gallatin Valley Food Bank for their clients. MFEI provided funding support for this 2020 Community Carrot Harvest project.  

Building on the success of Gallatin Valley’s 2020 Community Carrot Harvest, in 2021 MFEI was able to support another round of mini-grant funding for the “Community Carrot 2021 Pilot” project. The project sought to launch a long-term, sustainable Community Harvest program to help design, promote, coordinate, and support on-going fun, meaningful volunteer opportunities that engage community members directly in their local food system. The project’s tagline is “a volunteer collaborative helping grow local food for community.” The presentations below outline how this project progressed, including its successes and challenges. 

Community Carrots presentation_May2021

Final Presentation at AERO Expo November 2021

Project #2: Farm Hands - Nourish the Flathead in Whitefish (Farm Hands) and Snack Fresh Friday

Farm Hands - Nourish the Flathead in Whitefish (now Land to Hand Montana) is a food security organization that also organizes a farmers’ market, a Farm to School program, a school backpack program, and multiple community gardens. They also work closely with FAST Blackfeet, an organization that supports food sovereignty and food access on the Blackfeet Reservation through their O’yop’ Food Pantry. 

In years past, Farm Hands has purchased apples and carrots from local orchards and farms for distribution to the O’yop’ Food Pantry and to Columbia Falls elementary schools through Farm Hands’ Farm Fresh Friday snacks program. For the 2021 growing season, Farm Hands wanted to contract with local farmers to grow 7,500 lbs of carrots for Farm Hands, enough to allow distribution throughout the winter and spring of 2022 (15 weeks). Carrots grow well in Montana and are also a crop that can be stored in the late fall and continue to be used for several months during the winter after the Montana outdoor growing season has ended.

At the start of the growing season, Farm Hands purchased “forward contracts” with Two Bear Farm and North Shore Farm using MFEI mini-grant funds. At the end of the season, Farm Hands organized community volunteers to harvest and process carrots. In addition to supporting the forward contact costs, MFEI provided funding support for carrot storage throughout the winter, and for travel and distribution of the carrots to the elementary schools and the O’yop’ Food Pantry. North Valley Food Bank has contributed to the project by including the carrots in their regular delivery route to take carrots to the schools and to the O’yop’ Food Pantry in Browning.  Due to the project’s scope, MFEI treated it as two community projects to provide supporting funding throughout the project’s term.

Digital Story for the MFEI Celebration in May 2021

Presentation at AERO expo in November 2021

Outcomes and impacts:

Both projects showcase the use of forward-contracting with producers and consumers. Forward contracting allows producers to lock in prices, ensuring financial sustainability and minimizing risk. Producers are able to plan ahead on supply and labor needs in order to produce the contracted products. Consumers, particularly institutional consumers such as schools and food pantries, are able to plan ahead for how the products will be used in their programs, locate appropriate produce storage, and to set up a distribution plan.  By using already developed distribution pathways the Farm Hands projects were able to further reduce project costs. 

MFEI Round 1 Project Frameworks

The MFEI project framework is a set of processes, conversations, and suggested tasks that provide guidance and structure for the execution of an MFEI community project. The framework helps groups map out the progression of the individual project steps from beginning to completion.


The MFEI Project Framework was developed over the course of 2 Advisory Board Member workshops as well as through collaboration with community project team leads and Advisory Board mentors with the initial projects in 2020. Each community project team used the framework in initial project planning conversations to help develop their plan of work and evaluation. 

MFEI Round 1 Project Frameworks_2020

Outcomes and impacts:

The framework supports teams in learning about: 

  • Components of an MFEI Community food system project.
  • How to determine fit of a community to complete a project
  • How to develop a diverse coalition
  • How to set-up the project
    • Project purpose and definition
    • Develop Mission & Vision
    • Develop core values
  • Define project metrics and success
  • How to share the story of the project
Farm to Institution - Hardin Farm to School Pemmican Project

Fifth grade students at Crow Agency Elementary School learned about, tasted, and made pemmican in school with community leaders. Engaging with traditional food and food preparation techniques promoted understanding and limited barriers to trying recipes at home. Increasing the visibility and knowledge of traditional foods for youth will empower families to connect with healthier choices through the land and food.


The Crow Agency Elementary School’s goals for the project included laying the framework for incorporating more traditional food practices throughout the classroom, cafeteria and community so that the students “may gain understanding of the nutritional, spiritual, and educational benefits of pemmican”. Among the primary benefits of making pemmican the school highlighted the following: “the primary educational benefit is to connect students to their food, land and culture through the shared experience of creating foods together. The nutritional benefits include supporting a local and diverse diet including chokecherries, dried meat, and healthy fats. Spiritually, this project aims to shift thinking from traditional foods being reserved for ceremonial occasions to more accessible and common with sacred understanding. Collectively, the pemmican project builds confidence in families making healthier choices together.” The project was carried with support from Hardin Farm to School.

This is the Pemmican Project print presentation delivered at the MFEI Network meeting in May 2021. 

Here is a video from Hardin Farm to School on how to make Pemmican. 

Outcomes and impacts:

This project intends to lay the framework for incorporating more traditional food practices throughout the classroom, cafeteria and community. The primary educational benefit is to connect students to their food, land, and culture through a shared experience of creating foods together.

The Pemmican Project presentation outlines how Hardin Farm-to-School went about planning their Pemmican lesson, details necessary pivots from their original plans, and shares key steps from the implemented plans. 

While it is valuable to share the process and stories from this project, Hardin Farm-to-School recognizes the history of misrepresentation and misuse of stories from this community. The Pemmican Project steering committee elected to make materials available for other communities to learn from, and that the sharing capacities of this project will be decided by community partners including students, parents, and teachers. Currently, MFEI has the Pemmican project print presentation and no other lesson materials are being shared at this time. 

The Pemmican Project will serve future generations by modeling experiential learning, building capacity for traditional food knowledge in schools, and generational empowerment in connection with land and food resources.

Renewable Energy and Inputs: Reducing Inputs for Community Food Systems Project

Two community gardens developed systems to generate locally accessible and renewable fertility: a biochar kiln at Ft. Belknap and a vermicomposting system in Manhattan. Each project was paired with new community education components. These fertility systems will feed gardens and recycle waste products for years to come.


MFEI Renewable Inputs Interest Form - This interest form lists out the many areas of renewable energy inputs that producers may want to consider for helping to decrease inputs to their production process. 

Project #1: Gallatin Conservation District – Vermicomposting Bin Project Profile

Vermicomposting Bin Project presentation from the MFEI Network Meeting

Vermicomposting Digital Story

Project Summary: The Gallatin Conservation District built a Vermicomposting Bin for the Education and Outreach Center with the help of many volunteers. This bin serves as an educational tool for the community and will help compost food waste and yard trimmings from the Education and Outreach Center Gardens, ultimately providing nutrients for the raised beds and potted plants. The bin is a continuous flow-through model. As the worms work to compost everything, they leave behind nutrient-dense castings. As more food and bedding material is added to the bin, the bin fills up. 

Project History and Motivation: The Gallatin Conservation District (GCD) is located in Manhattan, MT and serves Gallatin County. The mission is to “promote and guide the conservation and management of natural resources in Gallatin County.” To do this, the Gallatin Conservation District works hard to provide education on a wide variety of natural resource and conservation topics. There is an Education and Outreach Center which hosts raised beds, native plants, demonstration gardens for pollinators and xeriscape landscaping, and an outdoor educational classroom. This space was built in 2014 and GCD is always looking for ways to add educational components to the space. With the addition of a Vermicomposting Bin, youth and adults alike who come through the garden space can check out first hand how worms break down organic materials and we can use the leftover worm castings to provide nutrients to our raised vegetable beds.  

Project Process: GCD used this website for plans, which they adapted slightly: After that they gathered the supplies, collected some volunteers, and got to building! Charter Ranch supplied two buckets of worm culture and assisted in setting up the bin at the first Vermicomposting 101 Workshop. Susan Elder, an apprentice from Charter Ranch who oversees their vermicomposting set up on the ranch, presented about vermicomposting and provided samples of vermicast for everyone attending. At this workshop, the bin was set up for the first time by layering in cardboard, shredded paper, straw, the worm culture with worm castings and worms of all age levels, and food such as strawberries, greens, and coffee grounds. Everything got wetted down and the bin has been working great ever since. 

Project #2: Biochar Kiln Creation and Fort Belknap Community Garden

Presentation of this pilot project at the MFEI community launch in December 2020

Lynn Cliff, Jr, Councilman, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Mountain District Nakoda Rep.,  led the effort to create a DIY biochar kiln for making soil amendments to help support community garden food production in the Red Paint community in Lodgepole, MT, on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The kiln was constructed using two metal barrels:  a 30-gallon barrel inside a 55-gallon barrel, and a four-foot metal “chimney'' for venting heat.

Outcomes and impacts:

Project #1: Vermicomposting 

This project was a huge success and has already been actively serving its purpose. 

  • First workshop hosted around 20 people, who  learned about vermicomposting, the worms used, the benefits of vermicomposting, and got first hand experience in setting up a worm bin system. 
  • Student volunteers gained experience working with their hands and a better understanding the components of vermicomposting
  • Visitors to GCD have already seen some of the vermicomposting being added to the gardens. 
  • Future workshops and educational experiences are currently in the works for vermicomposting at GCD.

Project #2: Biochar Kiln at Fort Belknap

  • Biochar kiln project provided a case study on how to increase on-farm fertility through sustainable methods and locally sourced, readily available materials
  • Knowledge generated and shared on how to construct and use a DIY biochar kiln within a community food systems setting to produce quality biochar
  • Knowledge generated and shared on how to “activate” the biochar made in an on-farm system with locally sourced nutrients before incorporating it into a growing system. Two methods were developed: incorporating biochar into chicken coop litter to absorb chicken manure (side benefit: absorbs chicken coop odors); incorporating biochar in garden setting to attract night crawlers and absorb their worm castings 
  • Next steps include exploring how to incorporate the kiln into a community greenhouse setting to provide heat to the greenhouses while making the biochar
Montana Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative (MIFSI) Seed Bundle Project

Uplift Indigenous food security and Indigenous food knowledge by creating and distributing seed bundles within Montana Indigenous communities with seed from a Native seed bank. This project provided a case study for how to develop and implement such a program.


MFEI supported MIFSI in their statewide intertribal food sovereignty efforts. Witnessing the increased food insecurity that the COVID-19 pandemic caused in Indian Country, MIFSI wanted to aid communities in creating "resiliency gardens" to enhance food sovereignty and food security on reservations in Montana. MIFSI brought Native youth and young professionals together with elder-mentors to fulfill a vision of creating healthy and resilient food systems among Montana’s Native Nations.  As one of its first projects, MIFSI created seed bundles which were distributed to communities across the state. Community members were encouraged to share gardening and seed saving knowledge and practices on MIFSI’s Facebook Page. MIFSI’s long-term goal is for Native communities statewide to create an ongoing cycle of gardening, seed saving, and seed distribution. This first year, seeds were purchased. In future years, MIFSI hopes to collect seeds from Native growers across the state. 

MIFSI_Celebration2021 Presentation

MIFSI celebration talk at MFEI Network meeting in May

Outcomes and impacts:
  • Over 100 family-sized seed bundles plus community garden-sized seed bundles were created and distributed 

  • 250-500 educational material pieces on gardening and seed saving were printed and distributed to communities statewide

  • Facebook page to connect seed bundle holders and to provide a space for knowledge-sharing was created and curated 

  • Facilitated knowledge-sharing and implementation of Native food growing practices, including smudging seed bundles, intergenerational planting and harvesting, and sharing and trading food with relatives

Butte Community Food Systems Assessment - Updated from Progress Report

Support a Montana community through a community food systems assessment. Note: this entry, including the digital story, the final presentation, and the final community food system assessment snapshot for the Butte Food Coalition, is a continuation from the WSARE Progress Report approved on 1/29/21.


With the support of MFEI and an AERO-trained assessor, Butte community organizations and individual stakeholders completed a community food systems assessment together. The group assessed areas of opportunity and areas of strength among five food system sectors (production, transformation/processing, distribution, consumption/access, and resource management/food remainder recovery), and in the community asset areas of economy, wellness, environment, equity, and policy. The group also created a Butte-specific community survey to gather community input, and carried out the survey throughout June 2020 at the summer Farmer's Market, local grocery stores and restaurants, and through online methods (newsletters and social media). The assessment and survey results were synthesized into the "Butte Community Systems Snapshot", a community education resource summarizing Butte's community assets and opportunities for moving forward.

Butte Community Food Systems Survey

The survey and the formal assessment process informed the Butte Community Food Systems Snapshot

At this point in the project, the organizations and individuals involved in this assessment decided to formalize into the Butte Food Systems Coalition. 

Digital Story from MFEI Network celebration in May 2021

MFEI stayed on with the Coalition through project prioritization and some initial project planning. The Butte Food Systems Coalition did their final presentation at AERO EXPO in November 2021.

Butte CFSA Presentation_AERO Expo_112021. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Individuals in the community coalition have increased their knowledge and/or skills in the following areas:

  • Increase their awareness of, understanding of, and confidence in working with diverse individuals, organizations, and institutions to develop their community food system.
  • Discern the different sectors of the food system and their impact on the community. 
  • Create a long-term vision for their local food system that balances the environmental, economic, and social health of the region.
  • Learn about and practice using Collective Impact & Strategic Doing methods. 
  • Identify stakeholders and their interconnectedness in their community food system.
  • Develop diverse coalitions working toward collective community goals.
  • Execute community processes including facilitation, project management, partnership, and building successful teams.
  • Improved ability to participate in CFSAs through mapping, interviews, and public input sessions.
  • Identify primary and secondary data sources for CFSA and priority projects.
  • Know how to utilize community food system assessments to determine priority projects.
  • Understand evaluation methods for determining collective community projects.
  • Acknowledge the importance of design in community food systems and where it fits within project development.
  • Be aware of new tools and resources for various food systems sectors: production, transformation (processing), distribution, consumption, and resource management.
  • Create evaluation methods to understand whether projects developed are successful.

Educational & Outreach Activities

66 Consultations
26 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
5 Online trainings
7 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

6 Extension
3 Nonprofit
7 Farmers/ranchers
Education/outreach description:

Consultations (66): These include the coaching and meetings with Advisory Board mentors and the community project teams. Each project team met roughly 6-12 times over the course of the project. 

Curricula, Factsheets, or Educational Tools (26): These include 4 Interest Forms, 7 Digital Stories, 5 video project presentations, 5 print/PDF project presentations, and 5 other Educational Tools (2 Taste Test Ballots, 1 Project Framework Template, 1 Butte Community Food System Assessment [CFSA] community survey, and 1 Butte CFSA Snapshot).

AERO currently houses MFEI resource materials on its website. The Online Resource Library (ORL) has been built and is in the final stages of content review and user experience enhancements. AERO anticipates launching the ORL as a unique website by February 2022. The ORL will be an evergreen site where interested visitors can explore all of the educational initiatives from all MFEI projects. Once the ORL is live, AERO will promote its launch through our website, social media, and email newsletters. 

On-farm tour (1): The biochar kiln held a demonstration at Fort Belknap for the community once it was completed. 

Online trainings (5): This included 2 Advisory Board mentor food systems onboarding workshops, 2 Digital Storytelling workshops, and 1 facilitation training workshop. 

Published press articles, newsletters (7): Throughout the 2020-2021 grant, AERO has promoted MFEI’s work and these projects on their social media platforms, their website blog, and through their digital newsletters.

Webinars/Talks/Presentations (4): These included the (1) December 2020 MFEI Community Launch Meeting, (2) May 2021 the MFEI Network Meeting and Celebration, (3) June 2021 Round 2 MFEI Community Launch Meeting, and (4) the November 2021 MFEI AERO Expo Presentation and Celebration. 

Learning Outcomes

23 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
12 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
12 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

AERO’s 2020-2021 WSARE RGR project, "Montana Food Economy Initiative" (MFEI), increased producers’ knowledge and skills in collaborative leadership and cross-sector community project facilitation to advance on-farm resilience/climate adaptation, community food system development, and/or food equity. A producer-led Advisory Board (AB) supported the effort at all levels, helping design shovel-ready mini-grant projects and support tools, and mentoring grantees. The project awarded 15 MFEI mini-grants to producers in two rounds of funding and mentoring.  

The AB included 21 food system leaders: producers, agriculture professionals, dietitians, researchers, policy makers, agronomists, and students. Through transformative workshops co-led by AERO and Loren Cardeli of A Growing Culture in summer 2020 the AB developed shared values to guide MFEI’s work. These values informed grantee support tools: workshops on coalition building, group facilitation, community-centric visioning, and digital storytelling; project framework development tools; and mini-grant projects in 5 project categories designed to support building local economic resilience, environmental stewardship, community food system infrastructure, and/or food equity/healthy food access. The project categories were: 1-MT Food Connections, 2-MT Food Processing & Marketing, 3-Community Food System Assessment, 4-Farm to Early Care Education, and 5-Renewable Energy & Inputs. 

Round 1 (January-June 2021) included 12 community projects and Round 2 (June-November 2021) included 5 projects, 3 of which were continuations of Round 1. AERO hosted and recorded four virtual MFEI Network Meetings reaching 130 attendees. 

  • MFEI Round 1 Community Launch - Dec 3, 2020 
  • MFEI Round 1 Celebration - May 21, 2021
  • MFEI Round 2 Community Launch - June 9, 2021
  • MFEI Round 2 Celebration at AERO EXPO - Nov 12, 2021

End-of-project surveys (grantees and AB) found significant knowledge and skills increase in food system cross-sector community building and collaborative project facilitation. 

  • 100% agree or strongly agree that “I have increased knowledge of what a food system is than I did before the MFEI project.” 
  • 92% said their MFEI project “strengthened their partnerships within a community.”
  • 80% said they “have communicated more with other food systems sectors (producers, processing, distributing, retail, consumers, resource management) than I did before the MFEI project.”
  • 75% said “Our food systems project met the needs of our community.” 
  • 75% said they “value inclusion and building trust with diverse audiences and stakeholders for all food systems projects.”
  • 75% said “I want to purchase more local food since the beginning of the MFEI project.” 
  • 75% said “other Montanans are more likely to consume local food (bought or donated) because of this project.”
  • 75% said “I better understand the opportunities and limitations of Montana producers than I did before the MFEI project.” 
  • 66% said their project “involved a broad range of community members in defining project goals and completing the project.”
  • 66% said their project “built capacity for and community control of food resources and assets.”
  • 66% said “their work can continue beyond this MFEI project ending.”

By February 2022 AERO’s interactive Online Resource Library (ORL) will house MFEI tools, resources, project stories and presentations, marketed widely through AERO’s outreach channels, including social media, digital newsletter, and website blog. 

Success stories:

Success Story 1: Butte Community Food Systems Assessment

The Community Food System Assessment project that occurred in Butte, Montana felt particularly successful. A group of 12 Butte organizations, producers, and stakeholders representing all food system sectors were able to connect and assess the state of their food system together. This type of connection and conversation had not occurred before in recent history within the Butte food system. The farmers and ranchers in the group were able to outline the challenges they faced from an environmental growing perspective as well as how a lack of local processing, distributors, and a strong local market impacted their production business. 

The incredible benefits of this project included the new relationships/connections and learning that occurred among the original community project team and their commitment to continue working together.  Following the assessment, this project team formed the Butte Food System Coalition. The Coalition is currently formalizing its work into a fiscally sponsored project within another organization and defining a number of community-supported projects to pursue based on the community input survey results, including developing a community composting program. 

Success Story 2: Biochar Kiln at Fort Belknap

This project provided farmers a whole systems approach to developing sustainable growing practices while also teaching a DIY model for improving soil health for food production. First, the project taught how to make soil amendments (biochar) with recovered discarded natural resource materials (wood waste - lumber trimmings, garden and orchard woody waste materials). Second, the kiln was easy to construct from low input cost materials - a 55-gallon and 30-gallon barrel, 4-ft length of metal tubing for the chimney.  Third and fourth, and perhaps more significant, were the multiple functions and uses discovered for both the biochar and the kiln, helping this farming community build more sustainability and closed loop systems into their growing practices. For example, by placing the newly produced biochar in chicken coop litter to “activate” it before use (allow it to absorb nutrients from the chicken manure), the biochar also absorbed and reduced odors in the chicken coop. Because the kiln produces biochar under conditions that produce heat without creating a flame or smoke, the kiln could be situated to provide heat to the community’s greenhouses while it is also producing biochar. 

Success Story 3: Gallatin Valley District - Vermicomposting Bin Project 

This project was particularly exciting in the ways it illuminated educational programming and educational resilience. The MFEI mini-grant funding provided will allow for continued community education, engagement, and learning for years to come. 

In the participant’s own words: 

“[The Education and Outreach Center] space was built in 2014 and we’re always looking for ways to add educational components to the space. We wanted to add a place where we could compost more of the yard trimmings and food waste from the gardens but didn’t have space for a conventional composting set up. We opted to go the vermicomposting route because it takes up less space and adds a cool educational component to the gardens!

This project was a huge success and has already been actively serving its purpose. Our first workshop hosted around 20 people, all who got to learn about vermicomposting, the worms used, the benefits of vermicomposting, and got first hand experience in setting up a worm bin system. The kids who helped us build the bin got some great experience working with their hands. 

We have more plans to host a youth education event where the kids will learn more about vermicomposting and will get to be more artistic by decorating the sides of the worm bin, painting what is going on on the inside. The educational opportunities are endless with this bin. 

We’ve also already been able to add in things from the garden. The breakdown of materials is slow for now because there were a lot of juvenile worms in the cultures and they have a lot of material to go through since we just started the bin, but you can see a difference every day! The warmer weather will help move the worms along as well. We can’t wait to start using the vermicast in our gardens to see how the extra nutrients benefit the vegetables and flowers we grow.

We will continue to learn about vermicomposting ourselves and share our knowledge with others. We will look for opportunities to provide educational experiences with this bin and the worms inside for young and old alike. Once the worms have had more time to get established and are starting to go through the materials in the bin faster, we’d like to experiment with taking donations of food waste from people in the community to help feed the bin. Or it’s something we’ll incorporate into our youth summer education programs. We most likely will have plenty of materials anyways from the gardens, our office, and from the staff’s own personal food waste, but we’d like to get the community involved as much as possible.” 


The value of the Community Food System Assessment (CFSA) project, as shown through the Butte mini-grant, was tremendous. The project guided community stakeholders developing a clear snapshot of their community’s assets, opportunities and resources, and provided sufficient support tools for building lasting engagement among stakeholders so community-led food system development work continues beyond the assessment. 

AERO has been working with producers to promote sustainable agriculture practices in Montana since the farming credit crisis of the 1980's. Beginning with producer-led AERO Farm and Ranch Improvement Clubs in the 1990’s, and through two iterations of WSARE funded Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI) projects, AERO has consistently refined its learnings and understanding of the needs of regional and local food systems across Montana. We believe that Montana producers and the next generation of MFEI work is best served by providing the CFSA project to under-developed regional food systems in the state with the goal of helping community stakeholders build lasting community engagement to develop their food systems locally, informed by their own community assessment snapshot. Three communities where there is both a need and a request for assistance include the Helena, Fort Belknap, and Billings communities.  We have submitted a proposal to WSARE for consideration to support this work. 

Information Products

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.