“Vote with your fork.”
That was one of the overriding themes at the Homegrown Prosperity Conference, sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Council at the Billings Public Library last Saturday.
The NPRC’s Alicia Pettys, who organized the event, said they had been planning the conference for about a year, which allowed them to bring in some people from places like Kentucky and California for an outside perspective on the issues. Pettys said the main objective of the conference was to present more diverse and innovative ways of financing local businesses.
“We wanted to claim a space for people, and then invite them in,” she said.
So how does voting with your fork fit into that objective? That quote came from Trevor Lowell, the director of sustainability for the University of Montana Dining Services, and it applies to much of what the conference addressed.
It turns out that, considering we live in a state that relies on agriculture as our No. 1 source of income, Montanans consume very few of our own products. In fact, less than 10 percent of the food consumed in Montana is locally produced. What may be even more alarming is that while Montana in one of the leaders in beef production, 99 percent of our beef is shipped out of state.
This doesn’t take into account how much of that beef comes back to Montana, but the point is pretty clear. We could do a much better job of using some of our own best resources to put Montana products in local restaurants and markets—while brining prices down by doing away with the cost of shipping these products elsewhere for processing and packaging.
Ranching and beef production have become less and less profitable in Montana because of this issue of outside production, as explained by Jeanie Alderson, who along with her husband Terry Punt owns the Bones Ranch, which has been in the family since the 1880s, near Birney.
Theirs is one of many Montana ranches that are trying to keep their product here in the state, but as Alderson explained, “There needs to be a more organized method of delivering these products to local merchants. Without it, we end up having to pay a ridiculous price for shipping each and every order.” Alderson also said that there needs to be more education among the restaurant and food providers, so they know that just because beef has been frozen doesn’t mean it’s going to affect the flavor.
“When you’re shipping these products the kind of distances we have to ship them, they often have to be frozen in order to be safe when they arrive,” she said. “But the idea that this affects the flavor is a myth that’s been around for way too long.”
Ben Harman, owner and chef at the Fieldhouse café, was not at the conference, but his is one local business that has made an effort to buy locally as much as possible. In fact, when he first opened, his intent was to buy everything locally, but that proved to be impossible. The cost was just too high.
“I would love to say that we buy 50 percent of our food locally, but I don’t think it’s even close to that,” Harman said. “It’s probably closer to 20.” So why is it so hard? “Well,” he said, “just for example, I placed an order today, and I had to call five different companies to order various products. So it’s time-consuming, plus you’re paying five different shipping costs. If there was one place, like Sysco, that just carried local produce, it would be much easier.”
When asked whether there’s anything like that, Harman said, “There is a company called Summit Distribution, and this guy basically finds ranchers who are raising their stock in a sustainable way, and he’ll just buy all of it. Then he sells it around the state.”
Cori Hart, a professor of math at MSU-Billings who has taken a keen interest in local food, is now director of a grassroots organization called the Community Food Campaign, whose primary goal is to create a Food Hub. This facility would give local growers and merchants a central place to sell and buy (and eventually process) their products. The money this would save on shipping and processing would be significant and it would also allow local restaurants to buy fresh produce and meats at a much more affordable price, not to mention the time saved from shipping back and forth.
Hart and her team are still in the planning phase of this project, but the interest from all sides of the process has been great, and they are now looking for the ideal location, as well as funding to organize and promote the idea.
What’s getting in the way of making these things happen? Kimber Lanning, director of Local First Arizona, addressed that question eloquently in her presentation “Rethinking Local Economies.”
Lanning has owned an independent music store for 27 years, and when she saw first-hand the challenge of bringing people into her establishment rather than one of the chain stores, she decided to do something about it. Lanning presented a slide showing 15 Starbucks logos on one side, and 15 different independent coffee shop logos on the other.
“Starbucks is a great company,” she said. “I’m not here to slam Starbucks. Unlike most big chain companies, they provide benefits for their employees. They are also one of the few that don’t demand a local subsidy when they come into your town. They pay their own way.”
This information was new to me, but apparently many of the larger chain companies will approach a community with a proposal to start one of their stores there, and ask how much the community will pay them to come.
Lanning also explained that many of these companies make deals with the community that allow them to open their business without paying any property taxes. Pettys cited a local example: when GE Capital expressed an interest in opening an office in Billings, some of the locals built a state-of-the-art building hoping to lure them, and the county offered them huge tax incentives. Although GE did end up opening that office, it is now planning to leave a year ahead of its promised lease.
So those lower prices we think we’re paying at the big box stores? Much of that money goes to paying the property taxes for those stores. And who pays the subsidies? The local taxpayers. And on top of that, who pays for the medical bills for the people who have no benefits? You get the idea.
Lanning was just getting started. “See that Starbucks logo? You think they are going to be changing that anytime soon? No. So they have one graphic artist that does the logos and art for the whole company, and he’s probably got his feet up on the desk right now because he has nothing to do. Meanwhile, each of these other coffee shops is going to hire a local graphic artist, they are going to hire their own local accountant, their own local ad agency, and their own local web designer. So when you go to Starbucks, and think it’s no big deal to support a big chain, you need to realize that there are a whole lot of other businesses that are affected by each and every one of these small decisions you make. It’s not just the local coffee shops.”
To come back to Lowell, with UM Dining Services, the idea of voting with your fork has widespread implications. The more we can promote and shop in our local businesses, the more impact we are going to have on our local economy. Lowell has made a concerted effort since he started at UM to buy Montana-produced food, and Montana products now account for about one third of the food budget.
Lowell used an example of finding a company called Bausch Potatoes near Whitehall to buy the potatoes they use to make their fries for the UM Dining Services.
“We were actually willing to pay a little more in order to provide support for a local business, but we were very surprised when they came back with a bid that was lower than any of the outside producers,” he said. “And the fries are better!”