Montana Food Economy Initiative

Project Overview

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:


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: food processing facilities/community kitchens
  • Education and Training: decision support system, farmer to farmer, focus group, networking
  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, farm-to-institution, farm-to-restaurant
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, food hubs, infrastructure analysis, leadership development, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, social networks


    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).
    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.