Billings area food hub kicks off fundraising effort Tuesday

Posted at 9:02 AM, Apr 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-27 11:02:11-04

BILLINGS – With hopes of hiring a full-time general manager this summer, supporters of the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub will kick off a fundraising campaign Tuesday night at the Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill, 2203 Montana Ave.

Local farmers and ranchers who want to use the hub to market and distribute the food they raise will be on hand for the open house, as will restaurateurs and other area residents who want a one-stop shop for buying local food, reports Last Best News.

The open house will run from 5 to 8 p.m. and will feature beer, cider and food, brief talks from the local producers and some barnyard bingo.

Annika Charter-Williams, a fourth-generation family rancher at Charter Beef in Shepherd, said she has been involved in efforts to open a food hub for the past four or five years, “and just recently there’s been a lot of energy around it.”

The effort has been led by the Northern Plains Resource Council and its affiliate, Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council. A food hub is a business that collects, processes, markets and distributes food products from local farmers and ranchers.

Charter-Williams said a lot of individual producers already market their food to individual consumers, stores, restaurants and the like, but to reach the number of customers that would really start to transform the local food system, she said, a food hub is vital. She said wholesalers, grocery stores and institutional users, like hospitals and schools, need the critical mass of a food hub.

“They need the reliability of a food hub,” Charter-Williams said. “You need that consistency and you need that quantity.”

In a press release from the NPRC, Tom Tschida of Nash Farms, in Bridger, put it this way: “Most farmers don’t have a lot of extra time to market themselves or their products — farmers want to farm. A cooperative will allow us to combine our efforts with other small producers and get more products to more of the public.”

Over the past several years, considerable groundwork has been laid for the food hub. Supporters conducted a community survey, produced a viability study and paid Sustainability Ventures to develop a business plan.

Charter-Williams said the fundraiser being kicked off Tuesday is a one-month effort, ending May 31, to raise $50,000, which would be used to hire a general manager. Then, over the summer, supporters hope to raise another $100,000 in order to open the food hub by the fall.

They would need to have a small rented space with refrigerated and freezer storage space. Restaurants, stores and other customers would pick up their orders at the hub. Eventually, Charter-Williams said, there might be an attached store where individual consumers could buy local food. But to begin with, they will use the consumer-supported agriculture model of delivering boxed meat and seasonal produce to individuals’ houses.

The general manager will be charged with getting new accounts from businesses thqt buy in bulk, and finding new producers to meet the demand. The general manager would also help develop an online ordering platform, so they can compete with traditional food distributors.

The overall goal is to overhaul the local food economy, Charter-Williams said. Not that long ago, she said, local producers provided 70 percent of what people ate in Montana. “It really didn’t take that long to make it into a big, industrialized system,” she said, so maybe it won’t take that long to go back, at least in part, to the old system.

A portion of the proceeds from sales of all beer, cider and food at the fundraiser will go directly to the food hub.