SUSTAINABLE SUCCESS IN BIG SKY COUNTRY
Barb Baylor Anderson
"If you can’t visit Montana, at least you can taste it." That slogan draws Internet customers into Montana’s Mission Mountain Market Web site to purchase organic, natural and other specialty food items produced and processed in the Flathead region of western Montana.
But it’s not just cyberspace sales this group of farmers, ranchers, restaurant owners and others want to attract. They also are interested in fostering sustainable agriculture and community development through hands-on, local food systems promotions with local consumers.
"We are about preserving family farms and ranches in our area, providing opportunity to make them sustainable as a business," says Billie Lee, executive director for Lake County Community Development Corp., which serves as coordinator of the Mission Mountain Marketing Association. "We mapped the flow of farm and food products in and out of our communities and found the biggest need was marketing, food processing and distribution within our area."
Lee says the association’s purpose is to market the area’s specialty and gourmet foods under a regional identity and in a cooperative manner that extends the reach of promotional dollars and spreads costs among members. "We want to create in western Montana the kind of food processing, marketing and distribution infrastructure that 50 years ago gave Montana control over much of its food supply and made food processing the biggest source of jobs in our communities," Lee explains.
To that end, Mission Mountain Marketing Association members - many of whom started their companies through the enterprise and cooperative development center - sell their food products through the Web site, www.mtmountainmarket.org, and through local in-store promotions and shelf space. Consumers can buy food items ranging from caviar to beef to buffalo jerky, as well as jams, sauces, syrups and snacks. The Web site also offers a taste of local flavor through photos and has information on the producers themselves.
"We are currently delving into plans for a ‘buy local, ship local’ campaign for next year," Lee says. "Also, last fall we promoted member foods by having assembled gift boxes (that are displayed on the Web site) marketed to local companies as gifts for their clients and employees."
The association keys on messages uncovered in market research that will help sell members’ food products. These include trends in consumer buying habits toward natural, organic and "place of origin" food interests, as well as foods produced through sustainable practices that promote the idea of alternative crops and growing methods.
"We are establishing with our local Extension Service a preference marketing program, where farmers and ranchers can set up demonstration crops on their land with the goal of growing products that will fill niche food markets where sustainability is an issue," she says.
Mission Mountain Market also is in the process of adding fresh food products to its offerings to complement processed items. "We are constructing a new facility to process local farm products, including juicing and dehydration," Lee says. "The facility is meant to be a pilot plant to manufacture and test-market a variety of products. It will house a licensed shared-use commercial kitchen, an enterprise and cooperative development center, the marketing association, and general offices that support the project. We raised $1.2 million from federal, state and private resources to develop the facility."
To test consumer waters for perishable food products last fall, marketers pasteurized, bottled and distributed organic apple juice to local stores. "This was an entirely new market for farmers who used to send their apples to Washington for processing or tried to market fresh apples locally," Lee says. "We’ve lined up a system to get this local product on local store shelves. We’ve learned that when we create a resource the community can use, we help local growers move into new economically viable markets."
Juices and other fresh or chilled products produced at the new facility will not likely be sold via the Web site, at least initially. "However, the processing center will also feature capacity to dehydrate and freeze-dry, which will produce Internet-marketable products," Lee says. "When fully operable, the site will distinguish organic and natural products from others. We hope through the producer pages that give background of the product and its ‘land or company of origin,’ we will be able to tell the story of western Montana, its producers and the quality of life reflected in the quality of the products we make." AM
Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.