Back to Basics Summit: Leaders explore how co-ops can meet the needs of rural Montana

The Montana Council of Cooperatives was a major sponsor of the Montana Cooperative Development Center’s first-ever “Back to Basics” Cooperative Summit March 29-31, 2016, at Fairmont Hot Springs.  Leaders from the affordable housing and local foods sectors met to discuss unique challenges facing Montana’s smallest rural communities.  Summit attendees focused on how new cooperatives might provide local food and housing services to rural Montanans where privately-owned businesses have been unable to meet all of their needs.

Rural Housing

DSC042282Sheila Rice, Executive Director of NeighborWorks Great Falls, discussed the need for more affordable, quality homes for seniors, working Montanans, and people with disabilities.  Rice explained that insufficient housing has an enormous impact on the quality of life for everyone in a community.  DSC043082According to researcher Kathleen McMahon of Applied Communications, the negative impact has been especially hard on seasonal workers, single-parent households, and Tribal communities, where overcrowding has become an issue.


Resident-Owned Communities (ROC’s) may provide a more secure option for many Montanans who own manufactured homes but must rent space from a private owner who controls the land and prices. According to NeighborWorks Montana Assistant Director Kaia Peterson, there are now seven Resident-Owned Communities in Montana that essentially are limited equity co-ops where land ownership is shared among those who live there and governed by democratic co-op principles.  Peterson, who also serves on the board of ROC USA, added that the overall goal of ownership in a ROC was to “preserve affordability.”

DSC042782ROC’s and other types of housing co-ops are “changing the paradigm of ownership” expressed Chris Devlin, founding member of Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat and Guest House.  Member-owners at Devlin’s housing cooperative in Hot Springs must be over 55 years of age to purchase a share in the retreat.  They don’t rent or hold title to their individual units; each owns a share of the overall property with rights to live in a particular unit.  Devlin further explained how the concept of cooperative housing negates the “us versus them mentality” while it encourages a cooperative mindset of “we are all in this together.

Local Foods

DSC042502Jan Tusick, Director of the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, described how a local food system could be developed based on the cooperative business model.  She emphasized that processing co-ops are the key tool in any successful food system. Mission Mountain serves as a food processor for the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which helped finance the construction of the Ronan-based manufacturing facility used by Mission Mountain.  A complete local food system also must link the Montana producer to the consumer with a more cost-efficient distribution network, according to Bruce Smith, President of Farm-to-Table Cooperative.

DSC042422 Based on his experiences in food manufacturing, Smith expressed that once a market has been established; food cooperatives must focus on growing a variety of crops and enough of them to meet demand.  In order to maintain a successful operation, he feels producers must raise the quality of their products, and control their own distribution – all steps to establishing a more self-reliant local foods system.

DSC042602Several agricultural producers of Western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley have been successful in operating a local foods system.  Many of these farmers are members of the Loyal to Local Cooperative, a multi-farm subscription service.  Many of the grains and vegetables grown by members are sold locally at the Hamilton Farmers Market along with pork, poultry and lamb raised in the area.  One of the Co-op’s founders, Laura Garber, owns Homestead Organics Farm, where she and her husband grow a wide variety of vegetables.  Many of the seeds grown on Garber’s farm are gathered for Triple Divide Organic Seed Co-op.  According to Garber, the newly formed cooperative had sold over $10,000 worth of seeds during its first year of operation.  Triple Divide sells it seeds at 8 retail outlets and 4 farmers markets in Western Montana.  In addition to growing plants, Homestead Organics Farm also raises poultry and goats.  Garber and her husband are receiving support from the Montana Poultry Growers Co-op as they help build Montana’s first poultry processing plant in Hamilton.  Garber said the facility could serve as a model for building additional poultry processing plants across the state.