One of the quirky issues of Montana agriculture is that, while its crops feed the world, farmers struggle to deliver their products to local grocery stores.
That’s because, for a half-century, Montana’s raw food products have mostly been shipped somewhere else to be packaged and processed, said Nancy Matheson, an agriculture marketer and business developer for the Montana Department of Agriculture.
After World War II, producers became good at shipping their wheat out of state to be milled and bagged and their beef to a handful of collection points to be fattened and slaughtered.
The small processing plants that once dotted the Montana landscape and kept local stores stocked with locally produced food went away. And, with their departure, the small food producers’ route to Montana stores did, too.
“Montana manufacturing establishments, in 1954, we had 218,” Matheson said. “In 1992, we had 114. That was the lowest point. It really started a precipitous drop in the 1960s, but it’s climbing back now at the same rate it fell. We’re now above 171. That’s what we had in 1967.”
Shopper interest in local food products is growing. Local food manufactures are obliging. But the once-beaten path to market is now as hard to find as an old highway that long ago gave way to interstate.
The missing link to a full-blown local food movement, say Matheson and others, is local food distributors. That’s where Randy Lindberg and a handful of other start-up food distributors come in.
Sensing the local food movement needed distributors, Lindberg and his wife Nancy Lindberg opened Quality Food Distributing just west of Bozeman in Four Corners.
Randy had worked the West as an executive officer for United Natural Foods, America’s largest wholesaler of natural and organic foods. He noticed several Montana-produced products that weren’t widely distributed and thought he could use his business contacts to get them on regional store shelves.
“There were a lot of great lines that weren’t being distributed,” Randy Lindberg said.
In short amount of time, Quality Foods has picked up locally recognized brands and a few waiting to be promoted. Billings-based Montana Tamale Co. is a customer. Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, which raises cattle near Harlowton, is another.
Quality also distributes coffee roasted in Bozeman, pasta rolled in Polson and Montana Gluten Free products from Belgrade, to name a few.
Lindberg said his business is offering small producers more than a ride to town for their products. It acquires the products and then promotes them to every store on its distribution route. That kind of time spent persuading retailers to carry a product is something that food producers may not have.
“It’s really important because trying to do it all on your own, you’re buying a lot of fuel and stuff and you can’t do that,” said Rob Miller, of Montana Gluten Free Products.
Montana Gluten Free is a young company with a growing line of products that don’t contain gluten, a grain allergen that makes most bread products off limits to people with celiac disease.
The Belgrade company got its start a few years ago selling a few select gluten-free flours developed by scientists at Montana State University. Now the company’s business is picking up. It has a celiac chef on staff and is turning out gluten-free desserts and bread mixes.
Montana Gluten Free is selling its products online, but it’s also getting into stores and finding as it does that a food distributor is a good idea.
The challenge now, Matheson said, is connecting food processors with distributors, so trucks rolling across the state delivering Montana products are full roundtrip. The state of Montana is creating a database of food manufactures and distribution routes. It isn’t unburying old trails, but rather cutting new ones.