USDA official meets with Montana businesses

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

For a growing number of Americans hungry for information about their food, the nutrition labels on packaging just aren’t enough.

They want to know where their food comes from, what was poured onto or into it and, in some cases, whether it had a good life.

Those are questions that make many in the food industry bristle, but for those willing to respond, there’s growing opportunity.

“There definitely has been an absence of dialogue, and I think people want to have that dialogue again,” said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy U.S. secretary of Agriculture. She will be speaking with farmers in Bozeman and Billings on Saturday about marketing food locally and for export. But local food is Merrigan’s forte. “People want to talk about their food. Ninety-nine percent of people have no direct contact with agriculture. They’re not from a farm or ranch. It’s an important part of what we’re doing.”

Both of Merrigan’s Montana stops were organized by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. The Bozeman event is an all-day Small Business Opportunity Workshop on local and regional marketing at Montana State University. Merrigan and Tester will also meet in Billings at Good Earth Market with producers marketing food locally. That meeting is scheduled for 3:30 pm.

Americans were once more familiar with where their food was produced. Their ties to the farm were stronger. It took more people to produce food on farms. Food was processed in local canneries, slaughterhouses and dairies. Roughly 70 percent of what Montanans ate was produced in state. That changed with the arrival of the interstate highway system and refrigerated shipping, which allowed for centralized processing and national, as well as global, distribution.

The USDA is trying to give the local-food industry a fighting chance. It has published an online map of small meat processors to help ranchers and poultry producers interested in doing local business. It’s created funding for farms interested in producing vegetables for local markets.

Small distributors are struggling to survive.

“Actually it’s very difficult,” said Bonnie Martinell, of On Thyme Gourmet in Bridger. Martinell’s fresh herb products, processed at a small commercial facility, are a culinary hit, but getting them to Montana stores hasn’t been easy. “There aren’t many distributors out there that have stayed in business. Our customers, once they use our products they don’t cook without it, but they have trouble getting it. That’s our biggest challenge.”

In state, On Thyme’s reliable distributor is Bozeman-based Quality Foods Distributing, which trucks health-minded, locally produced foods to stores in Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Beyond that, On Thyme fills orders placed at Florida has been a hot spot for sales through Amazon for On Thyme.

Business has been intensely challenging for Mary and Jared Tuck of Kalispell Kreamery. The Tucks and Mary’s parents, Bill and Marilyn Hedstrom, ran a conventional dairy farm in the Flathead Valley until the challenges of getting their milk to a processor became too hard.

The family saw a demand for antibiotic- and hormone-free milk that was minimally processed. Consumers wanted to know where their milk was coming from and Kalispell Kreamery was well-positioned to tell them, Tuck said. The company even gives farm tours.

The business sells milk that’s pasteurized but not homogenized; it’s the kind of milk with cream that rises to the top. Billings’ Good Earth Market is its farthest customer from home.

“There were a lot of steps to be taken. We had to build our own facility from scratch by ourselves,” Tuck said. “We got a Growth Through Agriculture Grant from the state, and I give them full credit for that.”

The dairy has gone from two hired farm hands to 11 workers getting its milk ready for grocery shelves.

The state is confident that the local-food movement can be a job generator if the kinks of processing and marketing can be worked out, said Angelyn DeYong, marketing officer with the state Agriculture Department. It’s helped create co-packing facilities and commercial kitchens.

DeYong’s office is creating an online distribution map to show businesses where haulers of Montana-processed food are delivering. Keeping the trucks full of products both ways is one of DeYong’s goals.