When the Farm to College program launched at the University of Montana in 2003, Dining Services worked with eight local producers to help bring food to the table.

Now, as the program celebrates its 10th anniversary, it works with 128 food-producing partners, including 39 from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative.

“The university has a big impact on the community and we thought, as an extension of this program, we might have an impact on the community, too,” said Ian Finch, director of sustainability and food procurement for UM Dining Services.

As students, faculty and staff celebrated the program’s 10th year on Thursday, Finch described the Farm to College program as an economic development effort that looks to recirculate money in the community, driving growth in the local agricultural sector.

The annual food budget for Dining Services runs at around $3.5 million a year. Of that, Finch said, roughly $800,000 is spent locally through the Farm to College program.

“That’s going back to members of this community,” Finch said. “It’s not leaving the state where it gets funneled to executives, but rather, to the people growing and processing the food.”

Finch said it’s estimated that every dollar spent locally through the program circulates through the local economy three times. A producer paid for her tomatoes might buy local seeds and local tools for next year’s crop.

The program also has proven effective in helping companies grow. Yellowstone Grassfed Beef launched in 2009 and UM secured a contract with the company the following year.

At the time, Dining Services represented 50 to 80 percent of the company’s business. Now, it accounts for 30 percent, not because the program is buying less beef – it purchases 27,000 pounds of Yellowstone ground beef each year – but rather, because the cattle company has grown.

“Because they had that secure, year-round market at the university, they’ve been able to add more cows and take more risk,” Finch said. “We spend $100,000 with that producer each year. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Dining Services also buys other local products, including buns from Wheat Montana in Three Forks, sausage from Redneck Meats in Kalispell, and oil from the Oil Barn in Big Sandy.

Dining Services uses the oil in dressings and fryers.

“We drain it and save it when we’re done with it,” Finch said. “We give it back and the producer turns it into bio-diesel for their tractors. They’re using the used oil to grow a new safflower crop, closing that loop.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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