Back in 2011, The Oil Barn founder Bob Quinn was attempting to take his organic safflower oil business to the next level. His only client was a local soap company, and Quinn used the rest as biofuel to power his farm equipment. But when his son-in-law, Andrew Long, joined the company that year, and the two started approaching local businesses, they stumbled upon a surprising source: the University of Montana, whose innovative Farm to College Program seemed a perfect philosophical and economical fit.
“It’s now a very important part of our business,” says Quinn, who has since doubled his safflower acreage every year for the past four years, from 200 acres to nearly 2,000. Two-thirds of his oil, a healthier alternative to fryer oil, goes to the University of Montana and one other school.
“It’s hard to keep up with the demand,” Quinn says.
The University of Montana Farm to College Program is the first program of its kind in Montana. It is a nationally recognized effort to grow, buy and sustain locally grown and processed food through direct relationships with local farmers, ranchers and businesses.
What began in 2003 as 7 percent of its total food budget is now a whopping 25 percent, a $866,000 a year enterprise in partnership with 138 local producers like The Oil Barn – and growing.
“We buy $3 million worth of food every year,” says Mark LoParco, director of University of Montana Dining. He adds that the university recycles its used safflower oil back to The Oil Barn to run its tractor, resulting in a price break for the college, an even more sustainable venture. The university also produces more than 2,000 pounds of produce each year in its 3,800-square-foot on-campus garden, which is cultivated by students across a dozen different academic programs as well as university staff.
Proponents of the local food movement at the University of Montana also know that not all dollars are created equal. One dollar spent locally has been shown to create a six to seven times multiplier effect, in terms of community impact.
“So when an institution like ours values those local networks and the small community connections within the food system, that creates a motivation to continue that process within those communities,” says Rebecca Wade, University of Montana director of sustainability. “We’re finding that our vendors are networking really well and using each other as resources, and that’s only increasing the multiplier effect of those dollars.”
In an agricultural state as productive as Montana, this all might seem like a no-brainer, but like many other states across the country, the overarching big business systems that drain local dollars can be difficult to break free from.
“I think a lot of people are under the impression that when they sit down at a restaurant in Montana that, of course, the beef is produced locally,” says Terry Hollingsworth, operations manager for Yellowstone Grassfed Beef. “They see cattle all around, so it just makes sense that this would be locally produced. But that’s generally not the case.”
Only 1 percent of Montana cattle are processed in state, and Yellowstone is one of the largest local producers. Hollingsworth says when Yellowstone’s founding ranchers, Zachary Jones and Bryan Ulring, met University of Montana’s LoParco at a sustainability event, they hadn’t yet heard of Farm to College. Now, they deliver 30,000 pounds of grass-fed beef to campus each year.
“U of M does a great job of not only supporting local producers, but also of telling the story and making students aware that the school values the local food movement,” says Hollingsworth, adding that there’s another very real benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“We also remember being college students and eating cafeteria food,” he smiles. “We think it’s great that they’re providing quality food to their students.”