As a county extension agent based in Glendive, Mont., Bruce Smith helps farmers who export their food to distant places for processing. But his real passion is in keeping food at home.
Smith, who stands 6-foot-11 and weighs 360 pounds (“So you don’t have to ask, I wear size 16 shoes”), used to play basketball for Montana State and, briefly and professionally, in France. But recently, he was at the front of a Denver audience at a conference called Community Matters passing around a piece of candy.
Smith, among the conference’s invited speakers, asked the 34th member of that audience to raise his or her hand when the candy came around.
“We’ve gone from producing food to producing ingredients,” he said. Almost nothing stays at home. Instead, the wheat grown in Dawson County gets put on trains – east to Duluth, Minn., or west to Seattle – for processing. Either way, it costs producers money, he said.
“I am a big advocate of food within 150 feet,” said Smith.
A hand went up in the audience. It was No. 33, but never mind. “I used to work for food companies. I worked for three of the top 11 food-processing corporations,” he said. “Who wants to eat candy after it has been passed around 34 times? But that’s what happens with your food.”
In a somewhat odd way, Smith represents two different but overlapping movements. Like urban agriculturists, he argues for locally sourced food. But Smith also believes that rural communities must do their parts, too, in figuring out how to keep food close to home instead of shipping most of it elsewhere.
“You don’t want to turn your food over to large corporations or the government,” he said. “I can teach you how to make cheese in five minutes.”
His community of Glendive, a town along the Yellowstone River that Smith describes as the sort of place most people would rather see at night while driving through on Interstate 90, is doing better than most.
Dawson County now has as many residents as it did in 1915. Farmers have become more efficient, each one producing enough food for 127 people, compared to 27 midway through the 20th century. There’s a farmer’s market, a community garden and a miniature greenhouse, portable and without the heat, that’s used to add several months growing season. Spinach, for example, grows November to March.
Smith also helped set up a Farm-to-Table operation, targeting an area of Montana and North Dakota within 150 miles of Glendive. The co-op includes food-packing business called Western Trails Food, which offers local beans for soups and hull-less barley, which the website touts as “the new rice,” with no loss of nutrients in processing.
Also a part of the food culture there: culinary instruction, offered through the local community college. Eventually Smith hopes for a restaurant that specializes in local foods. Blood sausage could be on the menu in addition to chicken-fried steak.
He didn’t always sound like a guy locavores love to love. He grew up in far northeastern Montana, a few miles from North Dakota and not much farther from Saskatchewan. He picked up two degrees in Montana and then a Masters in business administration from California Polytechnic University. Along the way, he became known for what he could do on the basketball court, eventually moving to France for the game.
That was big part of his food education.
But as a young man, he had corporate aspirations and made a personal vow to manage a food plant by age 40. He did it by 35, first in California, followed by major postings in Illinois and Idaho. He worked for three of the nation’s top 11 food processing companies.
In 1994, he returned to Montana and eventually to Glendive, where he eventually figured out a mission to revitalize his part of rural America. “The financial centers and the educational institutions are all outside of our area, so people gravitate and they rarely come back,” he explains. That, he wants to believe, is not an inevitability – just a lack of creativity.
As for processed food, after being on the inside, Smith advised his audience in Denver to steer clear of it – but not to attempt that feat cold turkey. Start with just one item, he said.
“Making conscious decisions about what you will eat and where you get it may be the single most important thing you can do to support yourself and your community,” he said.