117: Andrew Malucelli | USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) | Ronan, MT

So I’ve been working on getting a guest from this organization for a long time, and I think we got the perfect person from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Andrew Malucelli, from Ronan about 150 miles south of me, 120 miles south, 60  miles north of Missoula.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I work for the NRCS, I’m just gonna use the acronym. I’ve been with agency for about 10 years. As you mentioned I’m currently working out of Ronan which is the field office for Lake county. Most rural counties around the US have an NRCS office located there, so as your listening today can go their local office. I’m what they call a soil conversationist basically I assist farmers and ranchers in the county on conversation based improvements on the land.

Our goal, the agency started back in the dust bowl and we wanted to keep the soil from blowing away. Since then we’ve kind of expanded our scope and thus our name changed as Natural Resources, meaning that we’ll address any type of resource on the landscape besides just trying to keep the soil from blowing away.

On a voluntary basis producers will come to us for assistance. I can provide them technical assistance for free anytime. Then  we also have financial assistance programs in addition to the technical assistance to help them achieve their conservation improvements and  goals for their particular operation. 

That’s kind of my NRCS side, in addition to that I’m an organic farmer, as well. My wife and I farm, it’s called Dancing Boy Farm here in Arlee Montana about 30 miles south of Ronan where my office is. We sell primarily through wholesale. We’re part of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative. There are 42, I believe, farms. So we don’t have to do farmer’s market and things like that, since both of us have full time jobs off the farm, being able to sell it wholesale is much easier and fits into our schedule. So we grow a variety of vegetables for the coop, which then sells them and markets them for us and distributes them throughout Montana.

You have to tell me more about that? I never heard of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative How does that work? I never heard of that before. How does somebody get involved in that.

Well, not too long ago, some farmers got together that we producing vegetables here in NW Montana and wanted to have some additional markets to sell their goods. So kind of created this coop of growers. So we became a member of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative, I think this is our fifth season, and basically the coop sells the produce for us through local grocery stores, to the University of MontanaMontana State University, local hospitals, schools, things like that. They handle all the distribution, marketing, selling of the product.

For us farmers what we have to do is grow a good product,  and we post 2xs a week what we have to sell, and then the coop, tries and sells it for us. What they sell, then we deliver at strategic points at Polson down into Hamilton. Luckily there’s actually a drop off point can see from the farm, so it’s quite close for us, then they do the distribution.

So who does the distribution? One of the other farmers? or is there a person? That sounds too cool!

There’s a paid staff, they handle all the marketing, we have some of our own trucks, we also piggy back with a couple of other distributers to distribute the products we sell, not just the vegetables, but we also sell meat and dairy eggs, things like that.

Not necessarily all organic, the majority of us growers are organic. There are few that are not, but last year we had over $1 million in sales. So it’s definitely grown quite a bit over the years.

Do you have to sell your stuff for a lot less then if you’re selling it wholesale?  Are you still able to make a living that way?

Your right do sell it for less. If we were selling it at farmers market might get 2xs as much. Of course you got one sale day, you are probably not gonna sell everything you have, but sometimes you might not. With this we still make a profit and still do well. We obviously save on labor and time to not have to market the product ourselves.

Since orders are combined with all of the other farms, especially us because we farm less then an acre, so we would have a harder time selling to restaurants and grocery stores because we don’t have the quantity. Whereas when we combine with our other growers 1 box of spinach becomes 30 boxes of spinach! So that works out very well!

Awesome! I’ll bet a lot of people head’s are spinning, because that would be a potential way to get into farming that are intimidated by the whole process. I know with my husband and I we can barely produce enough for us, we barely have extra. Because it seems like even this year with our mini farm we planted it wouldn’t be enough to go to market or run a CSA or something.

We do reach up on the south end of Kalispell, have a couple of farms that have become members. It’s a great model, I’d like to see expand. It’s fairly unique, definitely unique for Montana. They’re trying to start something similar down by Bozeman.

I think that’s a great business model, I’d like to see grow all over the USA, but especially in Montana!

How do we connect with you?

The High Tunnel Initiative at the NRCS

You can reach me through the NRCS andrew.maluchelli@USDA.gov

I’m based out of the Ronan Field office, you could surely call there, I’ve helped people basically all over Montana. I’ve visited farms all over Montana, especially with organic agriculture and with vegetable production which is sort of my speciality now!

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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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