The Bitterroot Valley

The Bitterroot Valley at one time boasted a thriving dairy business with around 40 farms. Today, a handful of larger dairies still operate in the valley.

One of the underpinnings of the Bitterroot Valley economy is the money that stays in circulation locally. When local producers sell through other local outlets, that helps to strengthen both businesses. This “circular economy” is an under-the-radar factor in the county’s economic development

Julie Foster, executive director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, noted that 96 percent of Ravalli County businesses employ 10 people or fewer. “It stands to reason that if we’re talking economic development, they should focus on selling products or services to people who live in the valley,” she said.

This usually involves taking raw materials of one sort or another, and adding value to them. Examples might include taking local grain and water to produce beer, or even creating “Moo Poo” or “Afterburner” fertilizers from dairy waste products.

Tom Robinson, owner of Hamilton’s Market Place grocery store, stocks 160 different items that come from local producers. That’s not just small potatoes (locally grown, of course), it’s big business for local producers of everything from honey and breads to milk, beer and wine.

Robinson highlights those local products because he believes that supporting local producers is important both economically and environmentally, and that it’s also just good business.

“We want to get people to recognize that shopping local is important for sustainable living,” he said.

Robinson believes that local goods appeal to his customers for a variety of reasons, including “very competitive prices,” and he notes that they’re generally fresher, as well. He also appreciates the smaller “carbon footprint” for goods that aren’t transported great distances for sale.

“I want to support the local community,” he said. “It really isn’t any extra trouble, and I pay every two weeks, to help producers with their cash flow.”

One of the products he sells is locally roasted packaged coffee, from several producers. Big Creek Coffee Roasters owner Randy Lint credits Robinson with nudging him to start selling beyond his downtown Hamilton café.

“Tom very gently kept after me,” Lint recalled, “and it’s been terrific for both of us.”

Lint, in turn, uses locally produced milk from Lifeline Farm in his café. He acknowledges that it’s more expensive, but he’s convinced it’s worth the extra cost. “It’s a higher-quality product, it makes a great drink, and you know where it came from,” he said, adding that his customers value knowing who produced the milk or cream in their coffee.

“My business attracts those predisposed to shop locally. They tell us it’s really important. You’d be surprised how often they bring it up,” he said.

Lint knows that producing and selling in what he called “big circles,” makes the Bitterroot’s business community stronger. “We’re genuinely helping each other out, and so much more money stays in the local economy,” he said. That money then rebounds to benefit the community at large.

“The more successful we are, the more able we are to give back,” he pointed out.

Lint engages in other business-to-business relationships, too, selling baked items from Red Rooster Artisan Bakery, which then sells his coffee. He custom-roasts coffee beans for Posh Chocolat in Missoula, which produces a chocolate bar that he sells in his own shop, and he bottles cold-brewed coffee for sale at the Bitter Root Brewery and elsewhere.

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On a larger scale, Foster cited the Bitter Root Brewery as an example of a major, value-added contributor to the local economy. “They buy tons and tons of grain locally,” she said, and have a huge impact on local farmers. The beers they produce are then sold in numerous valley grocery stores and restaurants.

Such business-to-business cooperation “increases the velocity of money in the community,” said John Schneeberger, Business Development Specialist at the RCEDA.

The Wildwood Brewery, north of Stevensville, sells its beer as far afield as Whitefish and Livingston, but their biggest market is also in the valley’s grocery stores and restaurants.

Jim Lueders, owner and brewmaster, said that their brews are all certified organic. Organic grains aren’t available locally, but Lueders estimates that 95 percent of the grain he uses is produced in Montana.

“I try to source everything locally,” he said, and the brewery itself is a prime example of that, using largely recycled materials and locally-produced items in the straw-bale building.

“I’m part of the community,” he reflected. “We help each other out, we try to support local businesses. We can do it all here in Montana, and it’s better than importing from far-away places.”

At the center of much of this is Lakeland Feeds in Hamilton. They sell seeds and fertilizer, and in turn buy tons of local wheat, barley, oats, and corn. They then use the grain to make animal feed, which again comes back to the local market, this time as meat.

Their relationship with local ag producers is organic, said owner Mike Pflieger, in the sense that “we supply goods and services, and they supply food and fiber; you can feel good about that.”

Lakeland’s Michelle Buker said that while bigger feed producers may have greater buying power, Lakeland remains competitive because they buy from local producers, reducing their shipping costs.

“We like to keep that footprint small, keep the dollars in the local economy, and help local farmers and ranchers continue our agricultural traditions,” Buker said. “The effect is huge,” she said. For starters, there are 40 Lakeland employees that have jobs, she said, and that’s not even counting the ag producers and ancillary businesses they support.

They also dedicate part of their retail space to a year-round marketplace for locally-produced items. Buker likened it to a Farmers Market, where locally-made soap, candles, honey, garlic, alpaca-fiber crafts, and more are sold on consignment.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of local business-to-business relationships is the flexibility it offers. Lakeland can barter this year’s harvest for next year’s seeds and fertilizer. “We do a lot of horse-trading,” Pflieger said, noting that in the end, people still like to do business with their neighbors.

And that, in turn, is perhaps the greatest profit in the circular economy.

“It’s why we get up in the morning and go to work, is that relationship with growers and customers,” Pflieger said.