Emily Tschetter/Daily Montanan

The Montana Department of Agriculture wants to keep homegrown food on local dinner tables and so it has signed a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture to promote local producers.

The USDA granted Montana $600,000 from the $400 million Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. The Department of Agriculture will use the funds to partner with statewide organizations to increase distribution of local food through underserved communities.

They also emphasize creating long term buyer-seller relationships within rural populations to propel the local market past the LFPA’s immediate impact.

“It’s a really exciting program. The COVID-19 crisis nationally highlighted the need for more robust, local food system as many populations experienced food insecurity,” Montana Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Zach Coccoli said. “There is heightened awareness to make a change to the status quo.”

According to the department’s application to the program, 44% of Montana’s population lives in rural and underserved areas. Local distribution happens mostly along highway 93 in Western Montana and along the I-90 west of Billings, and other than several small pockets, the rest of the state has severely limited access to locally produced food aside from beef.

Significant sized producers are often not located near populations, distanced from the highways, and rural communities often can’t afford to source the local food. The program will place a priority on producers who can provide sufficient quantities to serve statewide buyers, and the funds can be used for producers to supplement their planting for following seasons.

Coccoli said the burden of time establishing partnerships with local growers, the harsh seasonal weather in Montana and the rural nature of the state hinder retailers from relying on local producers. However, Coccoli said grocery stores can avoid many of the supply chain disruptions by sourcing within the state.

“We rely on a pretty sophisticated global network of food movement for many of the product we are accustomed to seeing in the grocery store, but the more we can cut out middlemen and ensure that foods are grown closer to where they’re sold and consumed, the less chance of an unforeseen circumstance getting in the way,” Coccoli said.

The program will primarily target rural population centers outside of the two major distribution highways. The department anticipates 200 food producers will sign on and 40 underserved markets will see the benefits of the program.

The state’s hopes that at least 25% of matched sellers and buyers will maintain long-term business relationships and that the program will result in a 10% increase in both local food delivery to rural communities and boost producer capacity to serve underserved markets.

“Montana faces a confounding challenge of limited food produced for local consumption and communities with limited buying power,” The state’s LFPA application executive summary said. “We believe LFPA can be used not only as a tool to ensure that more Montana food is ending up on the plates of Montanans, but also to initiate long term buyer-seller relationships that will grow our local food economy.”

According to chief of the Montana Agricultural Development and Marketing Bureau Andy Fjeseth, the department hopes to launch the LFPA program within the next month but needs to fill some openings in their grants office from staff turnover before they start processing funding requests from producers, retailers and food banks. Tribal governments can also apply for the state’s LFPA funds, and Fjeseth encourages tribes to do so to supplement their rural populations’ food supplies.

The on-the-ground LFPA fund processing and distribution will occur mostly through nine development offices scattered across the state through the Montana Food and Agricultural Development Center Network. The FADC will work with producers and buyers to submit their applications to the fund in the coming weeks and set up business communications between local groups in the coming weeks.

“This is a win-win for Montana Agriculture,” said Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark. “The USDA LFPA program will bolster our state supply chains and deliver nutritious, locally-grown food to families across out state.”