Conference Host University of Montana Grows its Own Food and Buys Local
[Ed. Note: Here's where the money you spend for food at the 2012 Inland Northwest Permaculture Conference goes!]
UM's Farm to College program hits $1M milestone
September 22, 2012 10:30 pm • By MARTIN KIDSTON of the Missoulian Newspaper
On a cool September morning, University of Montana executive chef Patrick Browne wandered the school’s organic garden, watching over the selection of kale, the picking of tomatoes and the ripeness of the squash.
Standing aside in his white kitchen apron, he noted how the chickens will arrive fresh from Ryegate, and when the crowd sits down for supper at the evening banquet, scheduled for later that week, the entire meal will be Montana raised.
“We think it has a little more flavor, being local,” said Browne. “The chickens really do taste better since they’re not commodity chickens. Our beef is 100 percent grass fed and finished. It’s hung and dry aged for a certain amount of time.”
The banquet represents more than just a tasty meal served for the President’s Lecture Series. For nine years, UM Dining Services has been focused on buying Montana products through its Farm to College program, ensuring they’re locally grown and produced using sustainable practices.
This year, however, the program set a new milestone, purchasing more than $1 million in local and sustainable products for the first time. In the nine years since its inception, the program has enjoyed steady growth, backed in part by a movement aimed at building economic development in Montana while keeping agricultural land in use and supporting the slow food, or locally grown, concept.
“Last fiscal year, we purchased $804,000 worth of food products from Montana farmers and ranchers, which represents 20 percent of our total food purchases,” said Mark LoParco, director of UM Dining Services. “In terms of Montana, that’s a significant amount of money to be keeping in the state in support of agricultural development.”
The growth has been so popular that LoParco now finds himself traveling the country, helping other universities build a Farm to College program of their own.
Combined with UM’s other sustainable purchases, the college spent more than $1.1 million on local and sustainable products this past fiscal year. The goods included Montana beef, melons, eggs, bread, sausage, hot dogs, chicken and produce, among other things.
“That’s the kind of business opportunities were talking about when we partner with Montana food producers,” LoParco said. “It may launch for them an entirely new retail line. There’s all these little business opportunities that pop up, and that’s what keeps it sustainable.”
At the Stampede Packing Plant in Kalispell, T.S. Laurens, owner of the Redneck Meats brand of products, said the contract with UM represents one of his largest accounts.
While he declined to discuss volume and revenue, he said that providing signature Redneck hot dogs to UM catering, dining and concession services spells big business for a Montana company looking to grow.
“Selling to the university has an impact on our direct volume – it’s a big number for us,” Laurens said. “The other benefit is that they serve as a good reference account.”
Stampede Packing now sells its Redneck Meat products in seven states. Laurens said he spoke recently with a minor league baseball team that questioned his company’s ability to meet the required volume.
Laurens said he was able to reference UM and the hot dogs Stampede Packing provides during Grizzly football games and other sporting events. It was good enough to close the deal.
“And when we talk to a chain of supermarkets in California who don’t know us from Adam, it’s nice to tell them we make the hot dogs for the Griz games,” Laurens said. “It gives us credibility and demonstrates our ability to handle that volume.”
UM’s push for locally grown and packaged foods goes beyond Stampede Packing. The Farm to College program also works closely with Western Montana Growers, a cooperative of 39 farmers in the Flathead Valley.
The university buys bushels of apples from Moss Farm in Rollins, tomatoes from Arlee, bread from Wheat Montana, meat from Yellowstone Grassfed Beef and cantaloupes from Dixon Melons in Dixon. Add it all up and UM has established a buyer’s relationship with 79 growers and vendors across the state.
“We work really hard and it’s nice to know we’re well supported by the university and the state,” said Joey Hettick, owner of Dixon Melons. “It’s really wonderful advertising, too. You can’t put a price on that. It helps us in the long run.”
Standing in the organic garden amid grapevines, currant berries and cornstalks, Ian Finch, the Farm to College coordinator, said the art of buying local remains a fluid and evolving process.
UM Dining Services contains many moving parts, from catering to concessions to the cafeteria, all of which use Farm to College products year-round when available.
“It’s an intense amount of coordination and commitment on the part of the chefs, the buyers and those units to communicate with me out to the vendors on what we want – the sizes and varieties,” Finch said. “We have a purchasing committee that meets weekly, and we discuss the products we want.”
LoParco traces the program’s roots to a casual conversation in 2003 with Neva Hassanein, a UM professor of environment studies. While LoParco supported the concept from the start, he didn’t have the resources necessary to get the program off the ground.
Within two weeks, Hassanein rounded up four graduate students to get things started. Over the past nine years, the program has invested more than $7 million in Montana growers and producers.
“When we started in 2003, around 7 percent of our total purchases were from Montana providers,” LoParco said. “We had just 14 vendors of Montana food products, and now we have 79.”
LoParco is certain the program will continue to grow, drawing in new producers with new products. But the largest growth potential he sees on the horizon will come through value-added products and produce.
“Somebody grows the carrots but also processes them, cutting them into coins, sticks, shreds – all the different cuts of carrots we use,” he said. “Given the cost of labor, we can’t spend it to value-add the product ourselves.
“If places like the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan can position themselves to value-add the products for us, then that’s another market stream for them and revenue source for growers, and another step in keeping that part of the process in Montana instead of buying that product from out of state.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.