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Restaurant owners, chefs, buyers and processors met with Montana farmers and ranchers at Western Sustainability Exchange’s (WSE) Local Foods Commerce Day on Jan. 23. Similar events were held in Billings on Feb. 6 and will be in Missoula on March 5. Each day will focus on new local opportunities and ways to resolve challenges as Montana grows its own long-term sustainable food system.

Consumers are increasingly drawn to locally grown food for taste, reliability and economic benefits it brings. Many producers report that the demand for locally grown food is expanding faster than supply can keep up. Montana ranchers and farmers are finding new ways to diversify their operation, products, and income. Many of them find the new markets and growing techniques are resulting in even better care of their land and making them more profitable. Restaurants and chefs have enthusiastically responded by creating a variety of seasonal menus and dishes featuring fresh local foods.

“Consumers say they trust local producers and like that their food purchases are contributing directly to the development of a secure and growing local economy,” reports Lill Erickson, WSE’s Executive Director.

Western Sustainability Exchange, a non-profit based in Livingston, has organized Local Foods Commerce Days for the past six years. “As the demand rapidly expands, the challenges of expanding the supply to meet the demand grows as well. WSE organizes Commerce Day to help address these challenges.”

Sales relationships forged during Commerce Day and throughout the year from WSE’s Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection program bolster not only farm and ranch profitability, but the rural economy as well. Brian Engle of Pioneer Meats in Big Timber reported that the Commerce Day connections “gave us an extra $300 in weekly sales.”

“Additionally, more than $770,000 in sales was generated last year for Montana producers through the Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection,” said Conley. “Restaurants from Missoula to Billings to Yellowstone National Park are now buying from local producers.”

Local Foods Commerce Day is part of Western Sustainability Exchange’s focus on keeping Montana the special place it is by enhancing economic profitability for famers and ranchers who protect open space, wildlife habitat, and streams and rivers with their excellent stewardship practices.

Additional Commerce Day material and a full agenda link can be found at >westernsustainabilityexchange.org. Restaurants, chefs, producers and suppliers are encouraged to register early for the Missoula Local Foods Commerce Day by calling Western Sustainability Exchange at (406) 222-0730.