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Published October 05, 2010, 11:15 AM

Good things from Glendive: A garden in Bruce’s valley

GLENDIVE, Mont. — Bruce Smith is a giant of a fellow who wants you to think of the Yellowstone Valley of eastern Montana when you think of vegetables.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

GLENDIVE, Mont. — Bruce Smith is a giant of a fellow who wants you to think of the Yellowstone Valley of eastern Montana when you think of vegetables.

The Dawson County Extension Service ag agent thinks eastern Montana and western North Dakota could benefit both financially and health-wise from eating more of what it can produce. The concept is worth considering.

“In 2003, Montana spent $3 billion on food, and less than 10 percent of that was from Montana, yet we’re an agricultural state. We’re leaving $2.5 billion on the table. Yet we produce much of what they’re making our food out of,” he says. “I’d like to see us get to 25 percent. That would add roughly $1 billion to Montana’s economy.”

Recently, Smith acquired a grant to travel 16 counties in eastern Montana and 14 counties in western North Dakota, working to develop local food councils.

Smith has an impressive food processing resume, so his logic is worth considering.

“My whole focus is to take local stuff and turn it into something we can use,” he says. “We’re not going to take every pound of beef, every bushel of wheat, and turn into something we eat. We produce so much more than we eat. But I’m telling people we should be thinking that at least part of what we eat we can get that locally.”

Smith says the region has relatively few people, but has some important assets that make vegetable production doable here. Historically, Smith notes that in World War II, the largest truck growers in Montana were in Dawson County, raising potatoes, onions, carrots — “you name it.” An Italian family of farmers named Crissifulli was big into truck gardening and later focused on supplying irrigation equipment.

“We’ve got the climate, the growers, the water and the land,” Smith says. “I’d say we probably have the best climate in the whole state of Montana for growing annual crops. Land here is cheap, compared to what they’re selling potato land for in Idaho — one-third — and you could grow potatoes better.”

Back to the future

The Dawson County extension agent since 1995, Smith early on started focusing on vegetable production as a potential alternative to sugar beets, which faced a questionable future in the region.

As early as 1996, he was searching for opportunities for onions that could be grown commercially in the Yellowstone Valley. By 1998, the studies showed onions could be grown from seed.

“We had some guys that grew them for two years,” he says.

It was one of the ideas bandied about at the MonDak Ag Open, a regional agricultural showcase for the region on both sides of the border.

But the process of “chasing smokestacks” wasn’t satisfying, Smith says. He and others tried in vain to attract large-scale potato and onion processors or dairy processors. Each prospect seemed to dissipate.

“Markets fluctuate,” Smith says. “I thought I was spinning my wheels.”

While taking care of the traditional commodity goals, he started looking for higher-value success on a smaller scale.

He learned that commercial-scale onion markets were hoping to sell onions for 5 cents a pound. But they could sell the culls — the small ones — for 20 cents a pound. He thought about the opportunity.

“We thought, if the producer can get 14 cents a pound for onions in a local market, spend 5 cents a pound for promotion, he’s still be getting three times what he’d have gotten in the larger commercial market.”

Meanwhile, the local produce should be a good deal for consumers who “pay the highest freight rates in the nation,” both ways. “Somebody’s making money here, and it ain’t us.”

An outside voice

The Community Giving Assistance Towards Employment, a nonprofit corporation, was cre-ated in 1996 and designed to address welfare reform in the county.

Community GATE activities heated up in 2005, when Horizons LeadershipPlenty program of the Northwest Area Foundation included a “visioning meeting.” David Buerle, an economic development official from northwest Australia, came in to talk. Among other things, Buerle talked about how local food enterprises were being developed in his part of the world, which is similar to the Northern Great Plains.

About that time, the Glendive group bought a small food company from Bozeman, Mont., brought it to Glendive with the help of a grant from foundation funds. Now they had rudimentary food packaging equipment and some brand names, producing things such as bean mixes and pancake mixes.

“It was the perfect model for what we were showing people. You don’t need to spend lots of money to do this. You can have a mom-and-pop deal,” Smith says.

In 2006, the group completed a feasibility study to determine whether it would be feasible to develop a commercial kitchen for testing and manufacturing local recipes for commercial possibilities, and an associated year-round restaurant/microbrewery. The study indicated a commercial kitchen might break even but a restaurant would make lots of money.

In 2007, Smith helped form a “Farm-to-Table Cooperative.”

“It’s now, just about 30 people, actually just people interested in local food,” he says. “There are some producers and others interested in food.”

The idea was to coordinate production efforts and market collectively.

The same year, the group acquired a defunct Montana Dakota Utilities office building. The packaging company went into part of the building. The Farm-to-Table was housed there, and the rest was rented out.

In 2008, the group started a second farmers market. There had been one on Fridays, but the group pressed for a second one on Saturday. There are a half-dozen producers, selling farm eggs, baked bread, vegetables and flowers. The event is held in front of the office building, with demonstration gardens including an American Indian “Three Sisters Garden,” among other things.

In 2009, the group rented space in a defunct Safeway store building. The building, which had housed the Glendive Chamber of Commerce, came with a commercial kitchen, which the group now rents. (Coincidentally, the kitchen once was the site for producing Yellowstone Caviar Co., for paddlefish caviar.) Smith says the group hopes to have the commercial kitchen up and running by Nov. 1. The idea is to allow people with recipes and ideas to have equipment and a place to put their ideas into action without going out of the region. A local manager will help with recipe development.

In 2010, the group started a health food/local food store caters to people with food allergies.

One of the more tangible successes has been a community garden project to generate and demonstrate an ability to grow produce.

Gardening goals

The group started with a survey to determine interest and obstacles.

“The No. 1 reason people in Glendive don’t garden is deer,” Smith says.

To take care of that, Smith led in building an unusual electric deer-proof fence — beveled from the ground out. That cost only $300, with volunteer labor. The garden is technically outside city limits, which allows the electric fence.

“The No. 2 reason people didn’t garden was the high cost of water, so we have our own well. Water is free,” he says.

After two years, the garden will be turned over to a Community Garden Project. Members have 10-by-20-foot plots.

The first plot is $10, and any additional space is $5.

Notably, Smith found a grant to finance a “high-tunnel hoop house,” a structure to project to extend the growing season and grow a variety of produce. (It is like a greenhouse, but unheated.) The tunnel cost about $5,000 to build, paid for by a Montana Department of Agriculture grant. It is 30 by 72 feet. Two others — one 30 by 96 feet and another that is 22 by 48 feet — both movable, were built in the past few weeks and financed by USDA specialty block grants.

“For every layer of plastic you put out there, you go up a zone and a half,” Smith says, referring to hardiness zones. “If you look at the USDA map, we’re at Zone 4.5 in Yellowstone Valley, so by putting this plastic over it, you become a Zone 6 and by putting a row cover on, you can go to Zone 7.5.

“We planted spinach and Chinese vegetables in the first one in October last year. We did it in September this year,” he says. “We produce spinach in here until after Thanksgiving. Then it went dormant and then it started growing again in March.”

The two smaller tunnels are movable. One will be moved twice a year, the other four times a year. Areas under the smaller tunnels will hold perennials — things like raspberries, asparagus and strawberries. Smith says the equipment has been paying for itself in less than three years.

Looking at everything

Meanwhile, Smith pushes ahead on a long-term goal is to establish a culinary arts program with Dawson Community College, which would tie into a restaurant, which would use as many local foods as possible.

“The idea is to establish on-going relationships with local producers, creating a seasonal menu. The best food is the stuff that’s hours old, not days or weeks old,” he says.

Smith sees a special retail opportunity with regional and traditional products — things such as “blood sausage,” that would appear on the menu right beside the hamburgers and chops.

“You might change something like that every two weeks or a week,” he says.

Smith had hoped the 2008 farm bill would have allowed more meat products to cross state lines under state inspection, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“I can’t order sausages from the Wurst Shop in Dickinson (N.D.) because they’re not federally inspected at this point in time,” he says.

Meanwhile, meat imported from Canada can go anywhere.

The proposed restaurant complex feasibility probably would take $2 million to $3.5 million. The group is looking around for someone to make it a reality. Beyond that, the group is looking at pursuing dehydration for certain crops.

“We have a naturally dry, sunny climate,” he says. “We’d look at capturing solar energy and dehydrating food with it.”

The brainstorming doesn’t stop.

“We’re looking at everything,” Smith says.