ARLEE – There’s a growing concern around these parts, and Dave Prather’s in the middle of it.
In the four years since Prather, now 32, took over as general manager of the Western Montana Growers Co-op, sales have increased threefold, the budget has topped $1.5 million and the business has outgrown its refrigerated warehouse on a picturesque stretch of the Jocko River east of here.
“Basically they’ve just sold a heck of a lot more product to western Montana consumers,” said George Hart of Missoula, a former board member of the co-op. “When it comes right down to it, if we are what we eat, we’re eating better in some part because of what Prather’s doing.”
Be it vegetables, fruit or honey on a seasonal basis; or meat, lentils and dairy products year-round, Western Montana Growers Co-Op is emerging as a go-to option for farmers, natural food stores, hospitals, schools and restaurants from Hamilton to Glacier National Park and points east.
“We’re able to help our member farms grow their businesses and allow them to be successful,” the soft-spoken Prather said. “Certainly it’s not perfect and there are things we can do better, but we’re at least making good progress.”
Prather came to Missoula from his native Tennessee 15 years ago to enroll in the forestry program at the University of Montana. He graduated in natural resource conservation in 2003, the same year the growers’
co-op was launched in the Jocko/Dixon/Mission Valley region.
He got his introduction to agriculture through the PEAS program in Missoula and was running a small vegetable farm in Moiese in 2007 when he joined the co-op as a producer. That didn’t pay the bills, so Prather hired on to drive a delivery truck and work sales in the co-op office, which is housed in the basement of Harlequin Produce.
When the previous general manager moved on in 2010, the board offered Prather the job. He had no formal business training but felt he had enough background to manage the co-op alongside a financial manager and a sales manager – now Jim Sugarek and Steffen Brown, respectively. Just last month a warehouse coordinator was added.
It’s proven to be a successful team. Prather said the co-op has realized a small profit over the past three years, something it hadn’t done before. It also operates an expanding multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture program coordinated by Amy Pavlock.
Western Montana Growers Co-Op will be relocating to the Burns Street Square in Missoula by the end of the year. The move will ensure more cooler space to maintain better quality control over products.
“It’ll also give us a leg up on distribution,” Prather said. “About
70 percent of what we sell goes either to or through Missoula.”
Prather and his wife Eva, a botanist, still retain a market garden near
St. Ignatius. But their attention has been in a different direction since January, when daughter Eilinore was born.
The move to Missoula will be a commuting challenge, but Prather said it’s a step needed to keep the co-op viable. A lot of people are depending on it.
“It’s really a critical link between rural farms that are further afield and the towns in Montana and the people who want and demand locally produced food,” he said. “It’s not a secret any more that that’s a booming thing around the country, and I think it’s more than something that’s just hip. It’s part of a larger trend with people more invested in where their food comes from and want to know more about it and want to know their farmers.
“We’re able to play a small role in that in linking those two.”
Hart served on the co-op board for three years and nominated Prather for consideration in the Missoulian’s 20 Under 40 business profiles. He said under Prather’s direction the co-op has become “really a force to be reckoned with.”
“He’s easy to get along with, he’s knowledgeable and he’s committed to growing the farming industry in western Montana,” Hart said. “He quietly does some very strong things for a really important market. Probably of all the cities in Montana, Missoula is the most supportive of local agriculture.”