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New Ronan co-op grows opportunities

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At a time when many of Montana’s farmers and ranchers are worrying if their businesses will ever see a harvest in the new millennium, an innovative new cooperative in Ronan will soon help them expand their opportunities through specialty crops, develop their own packaged and processed food, and even market finished goods through the Internet.

The cooperative, known as the Mission Mountain Market, is the first of its kind in Montana and among the first in the nation. Funded by a $193,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the co-op will assist farmers and ranchers in finding new markets for their goods, adding value to their agricultural products and enabling them to compete more effectively in a global economy.

“Our desire is to create a way by which the small farmer and rancher can stay on the farm without having to get a job elsewhere,” says Billie Lee, executive director of the non-profit Lake County Community Development Corporation, who is setting up the Mission Mountain Market.

The cooperative, which Lee expects will be up and running by January, will offer ag producers the use of a food processing facility, a certified commercial kitchen and a packaging center where they can experiment with new products without incurring prohibitive overhead costs. The Market will also provide an “incubator,” where small businesses can learn how to write business plans, conduct market analyses, and expand their operations into the lucrative “e-commerce” sector.

Although still in the pilot stage, Lee says the Mission Mountain Market already has dozens of farms, ranches, orchards and other small-craft businesses from Hamilton to Kalispell signed up. The goal, says Lee, is to raise $1.5 million to construct a 14,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and if possible, be in full operation by next year’s harvest.

The plight of Montana’s farmers and ranchers is by now a familiar story. According to USDA figures, four out of 10 Montana farms sold less than $10,000 worth of goods in 1997, with about one-fifth recording annual sales of less than $2,500. Montana’s farmers and ranchers, who already have shorter growing and planting seasons and higher transportation costs than much of the nation, are enduring some of the worst prices for their products since the Great Depression.

Moreover, consolidation in the food industry by multi-national agribusinesses has all but eliminated competitive pricing in the ag sector, making the family farm an endangered species.

“We’re not getting the price out of our agricultural products that we want,” says Tony Preite, director of the USDA’s rural development program. “For our farmers to survive, we have to add value and create new jobs near the places that we grow products.”

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