Bruce Smith Front and Center in Billings Gazette
jbarngrover at aeromt.org
Fri Dec 1 10:30:37 MST 2006
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Farm-to-Table Perspective: Glendive project would boost local agriculture
By ED KEMMICK
Of The Gazette Staff
GLENDIVE - Bruce Smith, a farm boy from Dagmar, shipped food all over the
country during his career in the corporate commodities business.
One of his employers sold frozen broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels
sprouts. Another produced margarine, and a third had the second largest
french fry factory in the country.
Now that he's back home in Eastern Montana, working as a Montana State
University Extension agent, Smith is trying to find ways for farmers and
ranchers to make more money by selling their products locally, which will in
turn give people better, fresher food to eat.
That system worked once and it should work again, Smith said, pointing out
that 70 percent of what Montanans ate in the 1950s was grown in Montana.
"Now, if it's 10 percent, we'd be lucky," he said. "That tells me there's a
huge market out there."
Smith and some like-minded people in Glendive are hoping to tap that market.
They are planning to open a restaurant and microbrewery that would be
supplied by local agricultural producers, and to build a commercial kitchen
where local foods could be processed for retail sale.
Also in the works are plans to start a marketing cooperative that would
serve as middleman between ag producers and retailers and restaurant owners
in the region. Then there is a proposal to offer a culinary degree through
Dawson Community College. Besides teaching students how to run a business
and prepare food, the program would provide practical instruction in
establishing relationships with local food producers.
"We are selling wholesale and buying retail - and paying the transportation
costs both ways," Smith said in a commentary he wrote for KUFM radio in
Missoula last year.
But it's even worse than that, Smith said this week from his overflowing
office in the Dawson County Courthouse.
"People say the trucks go back empty. Well, they don't. They go back full of
money. And they go back full of our kids."
Smith grew up on a farm outside Dagmar. His father, Ed Smith, a former state
senator, raised cattle, sheep and pigs and had dryland crops that included
wheat, barley and alfalfa, later adding 1,000 irrigated acres.
Bruce Smith played basketball for MSU in the mid-1970s, and after earning
bachelor's degrees in agricultural production and business, he spent a year
playing basketball - and acquiring a taste for fresh, well-prepared food -
in France. He spent the next six years back on the family farm, until
drought and grasshoppers persuaded him it was time to go back to school.
He earned a master's degree in business administration from California
Polytechnic State University - Cal Poly - in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in
1987 and embarked on his seven-year career with large food companies. He was
a quality-control manager at a frozen-vegetable plant in Watsonville,
Calif., then went to Elgin, Ill., to work as a manufacturing manager for the
margarine division of a big food company. His last job in the industry was
in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he was second in command at the giant french-fry
But he and his wife, who went to high school in Culbertson, wanted to be
closer to family and to raise their two daughters in Montana. That's how he
ended up taking an Extension Service job in Whitehall in the early 1990s. It
was a good job, but Smith said he spent too much time giving advice to
out-of-staters wondering what kind of trees they could plant next to their
trophy homes along the Madison River.
"I figured I'd be better off back here, trying to help people who were
trying to make a living," he said.
Smith took the Glendive job in 1994 and has been pursuing that goal ever
since. He said he wouldn't have come back if money were his top concern.
"I'm working twice as hard for half the money than when I was running food
factories," he said.
"He's not your typical county agent, and yet he has done more to fulfill
what a county agent needs to do," Peggy Iba said. "Their goal is to help
agriculture and economic development, and he's done it in such a positive
Iba was the coordinator of a leadership training program that has made the
farm-to-table projects a top priority. The Horizon leadership program was
offered last year through the St. Paul-based Northwest Area Foundation, and
the portion of it that Iba coordinated served the communities of Sidney,
Circle and Glendive.
Smith was a trainer for the Horizons program, introducing some of his
development proposals to community leaders assembled there.
The farm-to-table projects are officially being promoted by a local
nonprofit called Community Giving Assistance Toward Employment, or Community
GATE. One of that group's early projects was opening a recycling center in a
building connected to an abandoned grain elevator near the old Bell Street
Bridge on the west side of Glendive.
Arsonists torched the recycling center a couple of years ago, but Community
GATE is hoping eventually to open another recycling center on the site. On a
patch of vacant ground next to the elevator, with its big views over the
Yellowstone River, the group hopes to build the brewery, restaurant and
A consultant turned in a feasibility study on those projects last week,
concluding that the brewery and restaurant would most likely be profitable,
while the commercial kitchen would be a more questionable proposition.
Gene Buxcel, executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development
Council, said he's convinced the commercial kitchen, which perhaps couldn't
survive on its own, will work if it is part of the restaurant-brewery. Smith
also said that if the Board of Regents approves a culinary school at Dawson
Community College, some of the students could work at the commercial kitchen
for credits while completing their degrees.
Community GATE is trying to secure grant money for the restaurant, brewery
and kitchen, but Smith said they are going forward no matter what, with
hopes of opening the business as early as next fall.
"We're not waiting for the grant money to come in," he said. "We're moving
ahead wherever we can."
Another component of the project is a building that Community GATE bought in
August from a subsidiary of Montana-Dakota Utilities. Located about a block
from the old elevator, the 14,000-square-foot Prairie Development Center, as
it is now known, already houses the local food bank, a small food processor
and the economic development council.
The food business is Western Trails Foods. Community GATE bought out a
Bozeman business, Cowboy Foods, and moved all its processing and packaging
equipment to the Prairie Development Center. There they package barley,
flapjack mix, flour, beans and other products for retail sale.
Smith said the hope is that the culinary school, complete with dormitory
rooms for eight students, could be accommodated on the second floor of the
building. The building is also planned as the future home of the marketing
cooperative that Smith is working to establish.
Starting several years ago, Smith got 12 area farmers to convert some of
their acreage to onions, and three of them are still planting them. The
trouble with growing anything but traditional commodities, however, is that
most people don't know how to sell them.
"Most farmers and ranchers are introverts," he said, "so marketing really
doesn't do much for them."
The cooperative could employ one or more marketing agents to sell Montana
meat, grains and produce. Smith said that is also what retailers want - one
person they can deal with instead of trying to make arrangements with
numerous producers. Smith said he'd like to have 1,000 producers in the
cooperative, drawn from a 150-mile radius of Glendive.
The final part of the equation is being able to offer people in Glendive and
elsewhere in Eastern Montana fresh, locally produced foods. He said regional
producers could provide the barley and hops for a variety of microbrewed
beers, and the restaurant could have a seasonal menu based on what's
available locally. People could make fresh bread using local grains and
"artisan cheeses" using milk from goats and cows.
"It's hard enough living in Eastern Montana without putting up with
tasteless food," Smith said in his radio commentary.
He said he, like most people he knows, eats a lot of bad food because that's
mostly what's readily available.
"Here, we're running around and grabbing whatever we can find and shoving it
in our faces, and wondering why we're not happy," he said.
Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick at billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.
Published on Friday, December 01, 2006.
Last modified on 12/1/2006 at 12:24 am
Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.
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glendive native wrote on December 01, 2006 7:59 AM
Great Job Bruce. Glendive needs more creative people like you to enhance
economic development. Glendive is a great community and it needs some
development. I hope you have the backing that you need to help this
community grow and help the farmers around the community as prosperous as
Imagine wrote on December 01, 2006 8:03 AM
Can we clone Mr. Smith and send one of him to every eastern Montana county?
Imagine the possibilities if everyone had an extension agent like Bruce.
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