(June 25) The soaring mountains and fertile valleys of western Montana paint a portrait of rugged beauty rarely found elsewhere in the U.S.

The region’s grower-shippers are of equally rugged stock. Many are members of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, Arlee, Mont.

In most cases, their crops — garlic, onions, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, herbs — have been certified organic for more than 15 years. Some also raise beef cattle and bison; others raise poultry.

They are folks who don’t meekly swallow rejection. The five-year-old cooperative has, since its founding, sold to foodservice and to the University of Montana. Not all of the region’s grocery stores, however, are among the cooperative’s customers.

“I’ve been frustrated with some of the retailers who didn’t want to embrace the co-op growers and were difficult to deal with,” said Mark Wehri, the cooperative’s general manager. “My attitude is that if you guys don’t want to work with us, we’re going to find a way to get our food out there.”

The cooperative is in the first year of what it calls the retail project, a concept members had been discussing for several years, Wehri said. The cooperative is bypassing recalcitrant retailers and selling directly to consumers.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wehri said the cooperative upgraded its Web site, www.wmgcoop.com, to handle 100% online ordering. A cooperative-owned truck delivers the produce weekly to a handful of distribution sites from which the consumers pick up individual orders. The software upgrades also make the accounting process more efficient, Wehri said.

“We’re trying to tailor the offerings to the individual customers more so than a traditional CSA (community supported agriculture),” said Douglas Baty, a cooperative member and owner of Wildplum Farm, Dixon. “Customers have more buying flexibility because of the Web site ordering.”

Nearly all the project’s customers receive the basic box of seasonal vegetables and fruit, Wehri said. They may order extra and non-mainstream produce, he said, along with eggs and dairy products. If a consumer does not have access to the Internet, a cooperative member will place the order for him.

By design, the retail project is taking small steps in this, its first year. We wanted it to be big enough to be a test but small enough to work out problems before they became huge, Baty said.

“We’re thrilled; we’re trying to focus on the rural areas where our farms are,” said Julie Pavlock, a partner in family owned and operated Foothill Farm, St. Ignatius. “Once people signed up for it, we just kept getting more and more calls.”

At Lifeline Produce, Victor, the project has produced a stronger bottom line.

“It represents up to 15% of our sales,” said partner Steve Elliott. “We had been selling that 10% to 15% at nonorganic prices, but the project raised our price per unit almost 50% — and on our most efficient crops.”

The yet-to-be-answered question is whether retailers who refuse to buy from the cooperative are feeling the effects of the retail project. Wehri said it is too early to tell, but he forecasts the project will ring up sales of about $30,000 this year.

“I think next year we’ll more than double that figure,” he said. “We just have to ramp up our production.”

That could be a problem.

“We have enough land to expand, but there’s a limit to what family-operated farms can do,” Pavlock said.

Another roadblock is climbing land prices. New growers can’t afford the farms and can’t get the acreage they need, Elliott said. As a result, the growers end up with small acreage, he said.

Then there is the cooperative’s growing season that runs from late April to early fall, Wehri said, but some commodities such as carrots, potatoes and winter squash go into January.

“Consumers have come to expect to have everything all the time,” Elliott said.

For his 12 commodities, the outdoor growing season averages 105 days, Elliott said. But the addition of a hoop house (temporary hothouse) has extended the season, he said.

The independent streak of the cooperative’s members is not confined to the retail project. Most have opted out of third-party organic certification to join the Montana Sustainable Growers’ Union, Wehri said. He described the organization’s structure as akin to a self-policing approach. The union’s Web site is www.homegrownmontana.org.

“It’s a new model based around knowing the end-user, saying we really don’t need to rely on an outside source to certify if we know who’s buying our food and they know us,” Wehri said.

In part, the motivation for the switch to union membership was financial. Organic certification cost grower-shippers 1% of sales, Wehri said.

The retail project will not force major modifications to the cooperative’s business plan in the near future, Wehri said. He said he believes things will changes over time, however.

“The core of our business is restaurants and grocery stores,” he said. “But that core will probably evolve over time.”

Western Montana co-op goes direct to consumers
The Western Montana Growers Cooperative recently upgraded its Web site at www.wmgcoop.com to handle 100% online ordering. Frustrated in past years by a lack of interest from many retail buyers, the co-op is trying a "retail project" in which it sells directly to consumers.