The farm-to-table movement has grown extremely popular across the U.S. and western Montana in recent years, but now Missoula has a new twist on the concept, as the first farm-to-food truck opened earlier this year.
Jesse Hadden and his team, including his partner Jaime Stevenson, manage Lower Crossing Farm outside of St. Ignatius. In the shadows of the imposing Mission Mountains, they have diversified their products to include a range of "value-added" products including pickled vegetables, homemade sauces and soaps. And this season, they are opening an on-farm butcher shop so they can process meats from their own animals for their food truck called “Take It Or Leave It,” which can be found serving burgers, salads and sandwiches at Western Cider a few nights a week.
Last month, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition kicked off its summer Field Days series with a farm tour of Lower Crossing to talk about value-added products and diversifying operations and marketing in agriculture, Montana’s largest industry. The trips are meant to connect young farmers with those who have experience and also to give working farmers insights into what works and what doesn’t for someone else.
“I thought it was a really great event and a fun way to kick off the series,” explained Dave Renn, the beginning farmer and rancher program manager at CFAC. “What Jesse’s doing up there is kind of such a new angle for farm operations in our area. So from the responses I got, folks were really excited to hear about something so new. Jesse was able to really talk about what’s worked for them and what’s changed as they’ve gone along. One of our goals is we want to be real with folks and we want them to feel empowered and encouraged to pursue farming and ranching.”
In agricultural economics, a value-added product is something that started as a raw product but was enhanced exponentially by turning it into something more desirable with labor as an input. In this case, Hadden has doubled the amount of money he can get for his pasture-raised meat by selling it in the form of burgers at a trendy food truck in Missoula.
“We would get about $4.50 a pound if we were selling it wholesale, and at the food truck we’re getting about $9 a pound,” Hadden explained. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Obviously, the food truck requires a lot of time and labor, but doubling the price one gets for selling a product is an enticing and lucrative proposition for any entrepreneur. Hadden said this type of creative thinking could enable more young farmers and ranchers to get into the business despite rising land costs.
“It entirely depends on the person and the product,” he said. “I do know that what farmers have to play with is their labor power, and that’s what we kind of leverage to make money. I can’t speak for other people’s experience, but this is keeping us going.”
Renn said he wanted to give young farmers and even established veterans a glimpse at the creative ways they can increase their profit margins, which on a farm usually are razor-thin.
“It’s something that is being focused on and talked about more and more kind of across the state in different sectors, all the way from processing lentils and yellow peas into protein ingredients before they ship out of state on Hi-Line down to the kind of thing they’re doing at Lower Crossing farm, turning their farm products into these ready to serve dinner items in town,” Renn said. “I think what Jesse is saying is it’s not even just about this specific avenue, serving food out of their food truck on a Friday night, but to always be able to look at the next new thing and stay flexible.”
Renn said there are many challenges and barriers that keep young people from entering the agriculture industry, including finding a suitable piece of land to buy or rent. For every less local farmer and rancher, western Montana has to have one more truckload of food shipped in from out-of-state, and that means more dollars are leaving the local economy. Renn said there’s a whole network of mentors who want to see agriculture grow in the region.
“There are a lot of folks who share this common interest in farming, but they are so busy,” he said. “So with these events, folks that otherwise not get to cross paths, because they spend so much time with their heads down getting work done, get to network.”
The Field Days all include a potluck at the end, Renn said, which increased the sense of community.
The Coalition will host a Field Day from 4 to 7 p.m. at Oxbow Cattle Company in Lolo focusing on grazing management for soil health. The events are free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required so they can get an idea of numbers. For more information visit farmlinkmontana.org/events/farmer-field-days/.