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

    Proposal abstract:

    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 Great Falls/Helena, North Flathead Valley/Browning, the greater
    Billings area 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 5 geographically diverse producers who will act as Field Advisors (FA), 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 ( 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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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 -
    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
    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 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 - March 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 - March 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 2018).
    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 - January 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 - March 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.