Whether buying steak or potato chips, beef jerky or fresh leafy greens, more and more consumers prefer locally grown food. This brings new market opportunities for Montana farms and food processors willing to preserve or process Montana farm products.
“It seems like people are pushing harder and harder to get the Montana-grown products into their food,” says Paddy Fleming, interim director of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, an outreach center at Montana State University that provides hands-on assistance to Montanans looking to do value-added agriculture. The center has identified food processing as the state’s agricultural sector with the highest growth potential.
“Food processing can involve many kinds of product changes, from simply washing a vegetable to distilling or brewing a crop into a beverage,” Fleming says.
Adding Value for Local Markets
Dean Williamson, who farms about 9 acres of vegetables at Three Hearts Farm near Bozeman, says there is market potential for even minimally processed Montana-grown vegetables – like lettuces and leafy greens.
“A restaurant or salad bar establishment would have to take my farm greens and wash them before they could use them,” Williamson says. “My farm lettuce is not ready-to-eat. I am not certified to sell ready-to-eat food.”
In 2014, with the help of business partner Christina Waller and a Growth Through Agriculture grant, Williamson launched Root Cellar Foods, which buys vegetables from a dozen area farms, operates a certified kitchen and is certified as a food manufacturer.
But processing vegetables for the Montana market goes beyond sorting and washing.
Take carrots, for example. “Processing allows me to sell carrots to be peeled, sliced, diced, shredded and sold as fresh products,” explains Williamson. “We can also freeze carrots in all those versions,” he adds. That can help vegetable farms increase their sales and profitability.
“I can grow and sell more carrots, since I can now sell them in a variety of ways,” he says.
Root Cellar Foods aims for the Montana consumer, while other food processors reach markets beyond the state.
Timeless Foods, in Ulm, nationally distributes a gourmet line of heirloom organic field crops, including lentils, golden flax, yellow split peas and specialty grains.
The 2014 State of Montana Manufacturing Report noted that the beverage industry was the state’s second-largest growing manufacturing sector, adding 169 workers between 2010 and 2012. Beverage sales for 2012 were nearly $40 million, with about $10 million sold outside of the state. According to the Montana Brewers Association, more than 40 Montana breweries use about 3 million pounds of Montana-grown malted grain.
“The breweries are spread out across the state, and they’re using a lot of local grain,” Fleming says.
Grains are not the only crops turned into beverages. Fleming and his wife recently sold the winery they established and operated for 12 years.
“We can harvest many varieties of grapes in Montana, including a crop of Pinot Noir about once every three years, depending on the weather,” he says. “And distillers are always looking to source Montana-grown fruit, like cherries and peaches.”
And, of course, wild-harvested Montana huckleberries are processed in preserves and syrups. Another avenue for farms to find more value for their crops lies in niche and specialty food products. “We have a lot of specialty food manufacturers in Montana,” Fleming says.