GLENDIVE - His farm truck bed is edged with a rind of rust and the frost bitten air needs thawing, but as Alvin Hoff unloads his harvest of dark red beans, he feels the heft of what he hopes are the seeds to farming's future.
"I'm always willing to try something different," Hoff said. "I've always put in experimental beans, soldier beans, heirlooms. I've put in beans the Mandan Indians raised, good quality."
To Hoff, these beans are seeds of hope. Discouraged by a global farm economy offering profit margins as thin as 3 percent, Hoff is trying something that hasn't been done in these parts for decades. He's raising food for his neighbors, for the local school lunch program and Montanans wanting to know from where their food comes.
The townies call this emerging trend farm-to-table. Farmers like Hoff call it a second chance at feeding the state, which Montana farmers once did well.
There was a time when 70 percent of what Montanans ate was produced in state. They grew watermelons in Whitehall, green peas in Bozeman, apricots in Corvallis, beans in Glendive, all for commercial sale. Now there's a push to return to those days by farmers and consumers who say farm profits would be better and so would the healthfulness of the food we eat.
But it's been so long since Montana fed itself, the burning question is whether it still can.
"Montana was a net exporter of processed foods and vegetables, and of course that was canned, but the state had the infrastructure to deal with a surplus of processed food," said Nancy Matheson, who oversees commodity development for the state Agriculture Department. "Cantaloupes were raised in Circle, green peas were raised in Gallatin Valley. Turkeys were raised in Park County. Cheese and other dairy products were raised across the state. And we grew enough to export them. We served other markets."
In 1947 more than 4,000 Montanans drew paychecks from the 200-plus canneries, dairies, slaughterhouses and mills processing Montana food. Those companies as a group were one of the state's largest employers, Matheson said.
That all changed in the 1950s with the massive expansion of the federal interstate highway system and the arrival of powerful, diesel-engine trucks. The trucks, initially designed for carry troops, rumbled into American life from the military factories of World War II. Behind them they towed refrigerated trailers, developed for hauling food to soldiers without spoiling.
Before the war, it was nearly impossible to haul food more than 50 miles. Trailers were cooled with ice and when the ice melted, food quickly spoiled.
After the war, fruit and vegetable states like California began shipping not only fresh produce across the country, but also frozen food, also perfected as part of the war effort. Food only seasonally available when grown in Montana was suddenly imported and available year round.
At the same time distribution was improving, the federal government began subsidizing certain crops like wheat, barley and pinto beans, a problem for Hoff and others favoring variety. Pretty soon it didn't make sense to grow anything the government wouldn't support, Matheson said. Federal subsidies were based on acres planted so non-subsidized, small-acre crops like vegetables quickly disappeared.
Just four decades later, despite producing enough grain to provide 40 loaves of bread a day to every man woman and child in the state, farmers are producing only 5 percent of the food in an average Montanan's diet. The rest is imported through an elaborate national food network.
The local distribution network and food processors essential for delivering Montana food to local markets has mostly disappeared. In a state with more acres plowed for farming than nearly any other, would-be buyers of Montana products must hunt to find food they need.
"The biggest challenge for us has been finding a steady reliable production stream for certain commodities," said Mark LoParco, dining services director at the University of Montana.
Montana's universities and public schools are at the forefront of the local food movement. Advocates of reviving the local food system, like state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, see public school and university cafeterias as essential for bringing Montana food back to the table. Juneau pegs the public school market for Montana food at $25 million. Others peg potential farm-to-cafeteria profits at $75 million if variety and processing improve.
Schools are easily the biggest food buyer in most communities, Juneau said. If the schools can get local food in the form they need it, it shouldn't be hard to get it delivered to local restaurants and stores, also. Public schools are trying to serve "all Montana" meals several times a year and working local food projects into their curriculum to make the lesson stick.
At the college level Montana State University in Bozeman is offering a new degree program addressing sustainable agriculture practices like farm to table and bio-energy. In Missoula, the UM's efforts to feed the campus local food are being coordinated with the environmental studies program.
Six years ago, at the urging of students and professors, LoParco started looking for ways to add Montana commodities to the university's food program. At the time, there wasn't a lot of local food on University of Montana's $3 million grocery list.
With the help of environmental studies students, LoParco went out and found melons in Dixon, Miles City beef, Flathead Valley pork, breakfast cereal from Harlowton and Whitehall potatoes, to name a few. Finding local food for the university has now become a job for a federal community service volunteer.
"We now have an AmeriCorps worker and basically what she does is find sources of local food for us. We have 54 active vendors. Around 20 percent of our food is local," LoParco said. "That's pretty significant in a $3 million food budget."
And local food hasn't proved more expensive, LoParco said. At times, the Montana sources have been better economically. When mad cow disease in Canada halted imports of hamburger, a staple food service ingredient, prices shot up nationally. But with a local supplier of beef, the university avoided not only the national price hike, but also the food safety scare.
Montana beef has been the hardest ingredient for LoParco to find consistently. He's looking for additional sources now. The state's last large commercial meat processor, Billings-based Pierce Packing Co., went bankrupt in 1985. Ranchers mostly raise cattle born in the early spring and shipped out of state in the fall for fattening and slaughter. If the beef makes it back to Montana, it's been so commingled in major packing houses that all a consumer can tell is if it's a product of "U.S., Mexico and Canada," the standard language on country of origin labels.
There's a demand for Montana beef when it can be had, say commercial food buyers.
"There should be no excuse for us not producing our own beef product," said Salley Young, food service director for tiny Greenfield School near Fairfield.
Young and her husband, Steve, raise cattle in the school district. When Greenfield began talking about buying local hamburger a few years ago, Young suggested processing a few of her culls. Vaughn Meats, a small, federally-certified meat processor a few miles southeast of town, agreed to grind the burger into packages called chubs and frozen patties. Greenfield's idea soon caught on. Now two dozen other small schools are part of the program.
At $2.20 a pound delivered, the beef hasn't raised the school's food bill, Young said. It's lower in fat than the food service meat the school was buying. Most importantly, it's local. In 2008 when meat suppliers to other Montana schools were recalling meat because of a California downer cow scare, Greenfield didn't have to worry.
"We know where our cows grew up. There's no downer garbage," Young said. "The product we deliver to people, when I look them right in the eye, I want to know where the cow was born."
This year, Greenfield began working local vegetables into their lunch program as well. Students have brought purple carrots, orange cherry tomatoes, corn. Young puts the produce in the salad bar, along with a note of about who contributed what. She's still receiving student's green-picked tomatoes as they ripen.
The state is trying to improve connections between farm and table. Montana's Legislature approved five regional agricultural innovation centers to help farmers add value to their products and form marketing plans. The best projects hatched at the centers are forwarded to state's Growth Through Agriculture loan program. The loans can be used for anything from irrigation to veterinary supplies, but food processing projects are well represented.
Six weeks ago, the state issued loans to a startup cheese factory in Bozeman, an egg processor in Broadview and processing equipment for local food at a new Lolo grocery. Six of the 2009 grants went to food processors.
But the road ahead is long. At Community GATE in Glendive, where Hoff pours his beans into a seed cleaner so they can be bagged for commercial and retail sale, worker Peggy Iba is aware that local food movement is merely blip on the agriculture radar.
An acronym, GATE stands for "giving assistance toward employment" and promotes a local farm to table economy. The seed cleaner sorting Hoff's harvest was acquired after the area's larger commodities companies balked at cleaning a mere pickup bed of beans.
"You ask the elevator if they'll clean it for you, they'll say no. They only do semi loads," Iba said.
"There's a demand for our stuff. We have a huge demand for our purple barley flakes. We're telling people you can ad value to your crops and form a food company. We did and it's really not that expensive."