Wanted: Entrepreneurs to operate a reliable delivery service to distribute Montana-made foods and produce to the many restaurants, chefs and guest ranches across this vast state.
Although Montana does have large-scale delivery providers, currently there are no smaller trucking services that deliver time-sensitive goods, said a room full of food buyers and producers Monday during Local Foods Commerce Day at the University of Montana.
How challenging is this situation?
When the Montana Fish Co. in Bozeman receives an order from the Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, the seafood gets delivered by FedEX, said Travis Byerly, owner of the specialty fish shop.
"There's just no other way to get it there," Byerly explained during the event's panel discussion. "The biggest hurdle for doing business in this state is the distribution piece."
It's particularly difficult when you have a niche product and a lot of miles between providers and buyers, he said.
Byerly's frustration was shared by everyone in the room - from cherry growers to salsa makers to chefs - all of whom had their own similar experience either getting their product out the door or in the door.
"You know it's the right thing to do - to buy locally - and you want to do it, but it's hard," said Kevin Kapalka, director of food and beverage at Paws Up.
The luxury resort has been working closely with the Arlee-based Western Montana Growers Co-op, and over the years delivery issues with the produce provider have improved, Kapalka said.
"Things have gotten better," he said. "I mean, we aren't meeting under bridges anymore to get our supplies."
With that comment, the room erupted into laughter. But the joke wasn't made at the co-op's expense; rather, it was in response to the realities of doing business in Montana, which sometimes forces small producers to hand off their goods at a prearranged halfway point at odd hours, often in dark parking lots and sketchy highway pullouts.
Despite such challenges, the demand for locally produced, thoughtfully grown and harvested foods is on the rise.
Supporting friends and neighbors who grow and produce food is a nice gesture, but such support has many other benefits, said Mark LoParco, director of Dining Services at UM.
The food is better because it hasn't been hauled thousands of miles and is therefore fresher, trusting relationships are built between the provider and buyer, and because the produce is locally purchased, wholesale pricing tends to be significantly more stable.
For all those reasons, UM will continue to expand its Farm to College program, which is a national model for institutional purchasing of locally grown foods.
This year, UM will spend more than $5 million on locally and regionally produced food, he said.
The Arlee co-op, which works with western Montana farmers to sell their produce at wholesale pricing has been growing steadily and expanding since it began in 2003 providing to five restaurants, said Mark Wehri, co-op general manager
Last year, the co-op served 35 restaurants and 45 producers. It has stretched far beyond Arlee and now provides market services from Hamilton to Glacier National Park, Wehri said. And some of the produce is being delivered to Bozeman and Billings.
Adding to the distribution conundrum is another equally vexing problem: "Getting enough providers on board to develop product for market," Wehri said.
"We've now gotten to the place where we efficiently and effectively do what we do," he said. "But we need more providers."
The airing of these critical issues was the whole point of the Local Foods Commerce Day, said Annie Conley, market connection program director for the Western Sustainability Exchange, the Livingston-based nonprofit organization that sponsored the event.
If Montana's farmers and ranchers are to thrive, if Montana's open spaces and agricultural heritage are to be protected, the exchange of ideas and concerns must be shared by all who are affected in the farm-to-market continuum.
Success, she said, will be found in gatherings such as the one on Monday, where collaboration and networking are promoted.
To drive home the point, nearly two hours in the afternoon program were dedicated to a "speed dating event" in which food buyers and producers met in 10-minute "dates" to build relationships and establish sales agreements.
"This is a great way to meet with new potential buyers and connect with new markets," said Heather Knutson, who came from Polson to talk about Country Pasta, an egg noodle pasta line her family started 20 years ago. "Western Sustainability Exchange is a good organization to get this thing going and get us all talking together.
"Eating locally is important, and the hardest part of it all is finding each other in an efficient and effective way."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.