A sign at Town and Country Foods in Billings, Montana advertises locally grown carrots in Hutterite settlements (photo by Darrell Ehrlick of The Daily Montanan).
The Montana Department of Agriculture wants to keep country foods on local tables and has therefore signed a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture to promote local producers.
The USDA has awarded Montana $600,000 of the $400 million Buy Local Food Assistance Cooperative Agreement program as part of the Biden administration’s U.S. bailout. The Department of Agriculture will use the funds to partner with statewide organizations to increase local food distribution in underserved communities.
They also emphasize building long-term buyer-seller relationships among rural populations to propel the local market beyond the immediate impact of the LFPA.
“It’s a really exciting program. The nationwide COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for a more robust local food system as many populations have experienced food insecurity,” said Zach Coccoli, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Montana Farming. “There is an increased awareness to bring change to the status quo.”
According to the department’s application to the program, 44% of Montana’s population lives in rural and underserved areas. Local distribution occurs primarily along Route 93 in western Montana and along I-90 west of Billings, and aside from several small pockets, the rest of the state has very easy access. limited to locally produced foods other than beef.
Large-scale producers are often not located close to populations, far from highways, and rural communities often do not have the means to obtain local food supplies. The program will prioritize growers who can supply sufficient quantities to serve buyers statewide, and funds can be used by growers to supplement their plantings for subsequent seasons.
Coccoli said the time spent partnering with local growers, the harsh seasonal climate in Montana, and the rural nature of the state prevent retailers from relying on local growers. However, Coccoli said grocery stores can avoid many supply chain disruptions by sourcing in-state.
“We rely on a fairly sophisticated global food movement network for most of the products we’re used to seeing in the grocery store, but the more we can cut out the middleman and make sure food is grown closer to home. place where they are sold and consumed, the less chance there is of an unforeseen circumstance getting in the way,” Coccoli said.
The program will primarily target rural population centers outside the two main distribution highways. The ministry expects 200 food producers to enroll and 40 underserved markets to see the benefits of the program.
The state hopes that at least 25% of matched sellers and buyers will maintain long-term business relationships and that the program will result in a 10% increase in local food delivery to rural communities and build the capacity of producers to serve underserved markets.
“Montana faces a bewildering challenge of limited food produced for local consumption and communities with limited purchasing power,” said the executive summary of the state’s LFPA application. “We believe the LFPA can be used not only as a tool to ensure that more Montana food ends up on the plates of Montanans, but also to initiate long-term buyer-seller relationships that will grow our local food economy.”
According to Andy Fjeseth, head of Montana’s Office of Agricultural Development and Marketing, the department hopes to launch the LFPA program sometime next month, but needs to fill some vacancies in its grants office through staff turnover before moving forward. begin processing funding requests from producers, retailers and food banks. Tribal governments can also apply for LFPA funds from the state, and Fjeseth encourages tribes to do so to supplement the food supply of their rural populations.
The processing and distribution of LFPA funds to the field will primarily be through nine development offices scattered across the state through the Montana Food and Agriculture Development Centers network. The FADC will work with producers and buyers to submit their applications to the fund in the coming weeks and will set up marketing communications between local groups in the coming weeks.
“It’s a win-win situation for agriculture in Montana,” said Christy Clark, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture. “The USDA LFPA program will strengthen our state supply chains and provide nutritious, locally grown foods to families across the state.”
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