Montana’s Food and Agriculture Development Center Network leads by example
Every community desires growth, jobs and innovation, but in the Big Sky State, these goals are made a reality through the Montana Food and Agricultural Development Network.
This instrumental network helps Montanans grow their agricultural and food businesses by sharing resources through its four nonprofit centers: Bear Paw Development Corporation based in Havre; Beartooth RC&D in Joliet; Headwaters RC&D located in Butte; and Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan. Each center boasts different specialties, ranging from in-house food processing and commercial kitchens to microloan funds, business development, and even conservation and food safety practices.
Through the Food and Agriculture Development Center Network, local products labeled with the Montana Department of Commerce’s programs Made in Montana, Grown in Montana and Native American Made in Montana are made possible.
LOCAL BUSINESSES. LOCAL SUPPORT
Uncle Bill’s Sausage was a small-scale company selling retail through its stores. The problem: limited market entry.
“We helped him move to our USDA-inspected facility and expand to four new markets,” says Center Director Jan Tusick, Food and Ag Development Center at MMFEC. This includes grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets.
Mustard Seed Sauce and Dressing Company needed a facility that could meet its growing demands of production. “We helped them research potential equipment that could bring more efficiency to their production. We also have the equipment needed to do fullscale processing. Now they are distributing regionally,” Tusick says.
Needing assistance with co-packing, Western Montana Growers Cooperative turned to MMFEC for chopping, blanching and other preparations of produce from local growers, which is then marketed to institutions like local schools and hospitals.
These are just a few examples of some 30 local businesses being helped on a monthly basis through the resources at MMFEC. It’s also the perfect place for any meat producer or processer with a USDA-approved “meat room” or for organic growers to meet certification requirements.
Over at Headwaters RC&D, the center similarly assists about 25 businesses during busy seasons, which includes a number of start-up microbreweries.
“Philipsburg Brewing Company became popular so fast that they decided to start canning and we worked with them to get their canning line. Now, you can buy their beer in aluminum bottles; it’s the only brewery doing so in the state,” says Center Director Joe Willauer, Food and Ag Development Center at Headwaters. Not to mention, the bottling line project created at least five new jobs.
Headwaters also houses one of the Montana Department of Commerce’s Small Business Development Centers focused on financials, which can help business owners avoid pitfalls and challenges, especially during startup.
At all four centers, education and training on Good Agricultural Practices, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are a priority. People can receive hands-on food safety training – an opportunity not presently available elsewhere in the state.
“FSMA is going to drastically increase regulations and this is a proactive measure, so we can stay competitive on a national level,” Willauer says.
Tusick adds, “We are a model nationally. The food industry is one of the most optimistic growth industries in Montana and we are well positioned to help food businesses develop through this network.”
AG BUSINESS FUNDING PROGRAMS AND GRANTS
Nothing is possible without funding, and while most ag businesses start with a Growth Through Agriculture Grant, the Montana Department of Commerce fills in where others can’t, such as with the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program.
“The Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program is able to assist ag-related businesses with grants for planning and job creation projects, such as the department’s awards to the Flathead County Economic Development Authority for Glacier Hops to purchase equipment, and Beartooth RC&D for assistance to One Montana for a prospectus,” says Sean Becker, Division Administrator of the Montana Department of Commerce.
The Community Development Block Grant – Economic Development Program is also funding similar projects.
“If a business is growing, adding jobs or doing research to see how they can attract or retain an investment, we would love to be at the table.”