The farm-to-table movement is growing in the Flathead Valley, but there are challenges both local producers and consumers face in sustaining community-supported agriculture.
A panel of local agriculture processors and food industry representatives talked about the business of locally produced food during the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce's monthly luncheon on Tuesday.
Wes Plummer of Lower Valley Processing Co. and Mary Tuck of Kalispell Kreamery addressed processing challenges, while Jennifer Montague, food service director for Kalispell Public Schools, and Seth Bostick, executive chef for Kalispell Regional Healthcare, represented consumers.
Dave Prather of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative discussed ways to bring the two sides together.
"It takes people on the ground who want to put the effort in," Prather said. "We do a lot of education on our part."
The cooperative, which serves 40 ag producers from the Flathead to the Bitterroot Valley, provides a wholesale marketing and delivery service for its members. During the winter months, the cooperative works with customers to get bulk estimates of how much of certain agriculture products they can use.
A crop commitment system enables farmers to grow specific amounts of produce, Prather said. For larger institutional customers, a memorandum of understanding with the cooperative gives more security to both the grower and consumer.
One of the obvious challenges for local producers is competing price-wise with bigger suppliers.
"I know we can't compete with Sysco," Plummer said about his family-owned meat-processing business. "We're about 15 to 25 percent higher. It costs more to do business here."
While big meat packing plants have onsite rendering facilities and even convert animals' stomach contents into energy that supplements the plants' power supply, it costs Plummer $110 every time a truck stops by to pick up animal waste.
Tuck talked about the higher cost of having to buy milk containers out-of-state. Small businesses like her family's dairy and milk processing plant don't have the same advantage as larger firms that can save money by buying in volume.
"Be your own advocate," Tuck said, responding to a question about what the most important thing was about running her business. "You have to stand up and say, 'I'm going to do this. I just have to figure out how.'"
Both Bostick and Montague said they'd like to buy more locally produced products, but as Bostick noted, storage space and costs are ongoing concerns.
Thomas Cuisine Management, under contract to supply some 1,200 meals a day for Kalispell Regional Healthcare, gets about 20 percent of its total food purchases -- the company spends more than $1 million annually on food -- from local sources. Bostick said by using commodity brokers such as Sysco and Food Services of America during the months when local produce is scarce, it "annualizes" the costs even though he pays more for local produce in the summer.
Getting too much of one perishable product also can be a challenge for institutional food programs.
"You can only serve so much squash until people get tired of it," Bostick said.
Montague said Kalispell schools buy about 11 percent of the school lunch food locally, including ground beef from Lower Valley Processing. She would like to get even more local products.
For Montague, the biggest challenge is meeting the $1-per-meal benchmark for school lunches. About half of the school district's food is obtained through Western Montana Growers Cooperative.
The trend toward farm-to-table food is a challenge for producers limited to a specific quantity of their product.
Tuck said her family's 200 Holsteins can only produce so much milk, and over the holidays when cream and butter are in demand, there can be shortages.
Plummer said he's got 140 HRI (hotel, restaurant and institution) customers on his wholesale route, plus the business's own retail shop at the Lower Valley plant. His business also does an increasing amount of private-label processing for local farmers raising everything from emus to buffalo.
"We are under growing pains," he said.
Tuck's parting words of wisdom: If local producers focus first on quality, the payoff down the road is the quantity of customers that can sustain local agricultural businesses.
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