Missoula growers union focuses on quality

By Erica Williams

Organics, the now twenty billion dollar Goliath of an industry, has finally met its David.  The challenger may be found right here in the state of Montana. 
Twelve Missoula-area organic farms have joined together to form the Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union, which now provides an alternative to the USDA Organic certification.  The "Homegrown" label focuses on community health and selling food locally.  After just launching the new label, the Growers Union has witnessed no drop in sales.
    Josh Slotnick, Growers Union member and family owner of Clark Fork Farms, explained the difference between the Homegrown label and the USDA certified Organic label.  "The difference with the Homegrown label is that any farm anywhere can't be a member.  You have to be within seventy-five miles of Missoula.  And then there are a set of farm techniques that you have to do and a set of things that you can't do.  In those ways we're similar to Organic but I think in terms of community health and general ecology we go beyond that."
    The Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union upholds a pledge that surpasses some of the more watered-down farming and growing standards imposed by the USDA.  First and foremost on the Growers list of do's and don'ts deals with the importance of locality.  "What we're doing is going further than that...we're committed to buying farm supplies as much as possible right here and committed to selling right here.  And we're all committed really intensely to this area where we buy our supplies from and we sell our produce."
    In addition to being within a close proximity to Missoula, members of the Growers Union do not use any chemicals, must have a soil-building program, are committed to enhancing wildlife habitats and protecting the natural ecology of the farming land, are concerned with animal health, and are dedicated to treating labor fairly.  The most unique component to the Growers Union pledge bonds the members together.  Slotnick said, "And we're also committed to working with each other to make us all better farmers. And that's really different from the USDA Organic, where it's just a stamp."
    Growers Union farmers get together a few times a year and organize extension visits to each other's farms as they exchange ideas about what is and is not working.  "The goal here is to bring everyone up, make everyone better farmers," Slotnick said.
    The goal of group improvement relates to the way the Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union originated.  Born out of neighborly discussion, the Homegrown label is and has been authentic to its pledge since the beginning.  The biggest challenge the Homegrown label has encountered thus far was creating a program from scratch.  Slotnick explained the initiation period.  "We all knew each other and last fall a few of us started talking...[to] come up with some alternatives.  And [we] talked about getting everybody together so we called everyone we knew, got talking and this is what came out of that conversation," he said.
    Although farmers like Slotnick had been producing and selling their food in a way compatible with the Growers Union pledge, they felt something was missing from the Organic label.  "It [the Organic label] didn't accurately describe what our food was, the other thing [was], when we were buying this Certified Organic label I felt like we were paying for something that we didn't need."  
    So why were only these twelve Missoula farms confident they were paying extra for excess?  The Growers Union relies on handshakes over contracts.  Many consumers of Growers Union produce know its farmers personally or have met its farmers face-to-face.    Slotnick said, "Well because we've farmed here for a long time, our customers know us, they know who we are. And when that really solid trust relationship built up with our customers, I thought we didn't need to have the state come and verify our promise that we grow a certain way because we knew all these people. We have relationships instead." 
    By purchasing supplies and selling goods to the Missoula community, the Growers Union has taken an active stance on supporting and developing the local financial well-being of this beautiful Montana town.  The consumer choice of Homegrown products over USDA Organic products is a positive one on several levels.  Slotnick explained, "If I buy the Homegrown, I'm not going to eat chemicals either way. But if I buy this one then my money stays right here and creates jobs and this keeps land in farming.  And land in farming here is Kalispell or here in Missoula means land that isn't covered with houses and strip malls; that means the land still reminds us of where we live and still gives to our culture."
      When the Growers Union swapped the USDA label for their own, the members' hard work was accurately described. Slotnick used the example of the Growers Union's commitment to fair labor.  He expressed the conflict with the Growers Union produce grown only miles from Missoula sitting next to bananas from a foreign country on the same Organic shelf.  "I feel that there's a substantial difference when the food comes from two miles away or when it comes from six thousand miles away.  There's a substantial difference when in one area you have day laborers working for eighty cents a day and the other area you have people working for a decent wage," Slotnick said.
    Looking forward, the Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union and the Homegrown label appear to be headed for long-term success.  Slotnick's hope is for the Union's idea to catch on all around the Big Sky and beyond.  "I feel that the path to a sustainable food system depends on us feeding our own neighborhoods, not feeding the world, the world can be a bunch of neighborhoods that feed themselves."

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