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Montana Coop set to launch in June

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MISSION VALLEY — The Montana Coop started two years ago as a first-of-its-kind, web-based consumer and producer owned cooperative. The idea is to connect local food producers and consumers directly over the Internet, eliminating the need for much of the costly logistical work that goes into starting a small business. 

“That’s the key description of the business,” acting president Jason Moore said. “It’s a coop owned by producers and consumers, so basically everyone who buys and sells local food. Outside of food, we’re marketing all kinds of products. Really, anything that’s made in Montana, we’ll be marketing, including animal food, adventure gear, and body products like toothpaste and deodorant.”

One added bonus to the coop is that buying locally keeps money in the community. Moore said the average dollar spent in a small business rather than a big-box store recirculates anywhere from two to five times in the community. 

“As far as local food goes, there’s nothing healthier for you than the freshest picked produce,” Moore said. “With our coop, you can actually get our produce the same day it’s picked.”

Eventually, Moore said the coop hopes to open store fronts to sell products, but until that time the Montana Coop will be an online-only business in which producers and consumers are part owners in the company. 

“And we’re not just talking food,” Moore said. “When we started out, we were the Montana Food Coop, but a lot of other online coops around the country are ending up doing more non-food than food, so we though we’d try to tackle it all from the beginning ... If we grow and consume 15 percent of our own food, we will retain $66 million in Western Montana. That is equivalent to $225 million for all of Montana. That’s a big deal, because 50 years ago we were producing 70 percent of our own food, so we’ve lost a lot of money and a lot of food.”

Thankfully, many local food producers have stepped up to be a part of the co-op. 

Bipin Patel started Tipu’s Tiger, an Indian food restaurant in Missoula in the late ‘90s. In addition to selling traditional Indian cuisine, Tipu’s Tiger sold a chai tea based on Patel’s family recipe. 

After about 10 years in business, Patel had to make a choice between the restaurant or the tea. 

“It was kind of an accident, really,” Patel said. “We served Indian food and the chai was a family recipe that spun off into its own business. It wasn’t like we started out to do a chai company, it just kind of happened.”

Patel sent his recipe to many of Missoula’s small coffee and tea shops. Before long, he was getting orders from out of state, and had to expand. The business moved to Polson, and that’s where Patel came in contact with Moore and the Montana Coop. 

“I think we just wanted to work with a local group,” Patel said. “We’re not just local, but we do like to support local endeavors as well.”

The tea is completely organic, filling a specialty niche in the market and, according to Patel, making a difference as far as flavor is concerned. 

“If you’re doing things organic, it’s more of a specialty range of ingredients. It’s also more difficult to do, and you have to be recertified on an annual basis,” Patel said. 

Even so, the process is worth the hassle and Patel hopes the Montana Coop will connect him and his business with more local customers. 

Just across the hallway in the same building on Sunny Slope in Polson, Country Pasta’s general manager Heather Knutson and the company her parents started in 1990 crank out more than 2 million pounds of dry pasta every year. The noodles are sold in about 40 states. 

“I think it’s good to support the local agriculture businesses, and I think Jason has done a really good job of pulling that together and supporting both the local producers and consumers around here,” Knutson said. “This is taking what we have going here to a local level, and that’s important to us as well.

“I think there’s a real significance and importance in making food where we’re at and supporting manufactures who make food. Wherever you live, I think that’s an important initiative.”

Knutson said other businesses might have a different perspective on the Montana Coop than Country Pasta because they are at a different point of their business. As with any business, it’s difficult to navigate the world of logistics between food manufacturer and food producer. The coop eliminates much of the hassle by cutting out the middle man and connecting producers directly with consumers. 

“With our new products, (the Montana Coop) will be an avenue to get local customer feedback, but for a lot of other companies, I think it’s a great launching plan for them,” Knutson said. “I think it will be very helpful because it takes away a lot of the logistical aspects and allows the businesses to be a local thing. I think it’s really good in that way and I’m excited to see what they put out there. I think it will be a great opportunity for us to be introduced to these products being made around there that we don’t even know about.”

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