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Flavors: Yellowstone Valley Food Hub - Feeding the Local Community from the Dirt

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Stella Fong
Sara Hollenbeck and Annika Charter-Williams deliver Yellowstone Valley Food Hub orders to cars lining up at Evergreen Ace Hardware for pickup on Thursday evening.

The tenacity of a dirty dozen minus one grew the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub (link to yvfoodhub.com), a cooperative of local farmers, growers, and ranchers. Harvested by the Northern Plains Resource Council, these producers germinated the effort to bring local food to central distribution points for our community. After completing careful studies and plans, the pioneers started offering local beef, lamb, and produce to Billings, Red Lodge and Absarokee in January of 2019.

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Stella Fong
Sara Hollenbeck at her family’s ranch, Hollenbeck Ranch in Molt. Hollenbeck started High Five Meats in 2015 to sell the beef and lamb she produces.

“For almost three years as an organization we put resources, mostly staff time, into thinking through what it would take to catapult local food production – growing it and making it available in this area,” Teresa Erickson, retired History Project Manager from the Northern Plains Resource Council said. The group made attempts to raise awareness through public education. They acknowledged restaurants and stores for offering local bounty with recognition. “But there were so few that it wasn’t hard to win an award,” Erickson said.

Sara Hollenbeck came to Montana with her husband, Henry whose parents own the Hollenbeck Ranch in Molt, also noticed the missing link between restaurants and producers. Having just moved here from California where menus credited producers, she wanted to make that connection. She started High Five Meats in 2015 after attending a women’s conference. “I wanted to have my own stamp on the ranch, so it was something I could do in addition to the day-to-day ranching.” Hollenbeck wanted to establish a way to get her product to the consumer, but also to establish a relationship with them.

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Stella Fong
Professor Alan Christensen teaches social studies at MSU Billings by fall and grows produce for his business, ABC Produce by summer.

When the COVID Pandemic began early in the year, Hollenbeck believed, “I thought it would be a two-week adventure and shutdown. So I was, okay, you guys, we have to capitalize on the people who are looking for food right now they cannot find at the grocery store. We have two weeks to get new customers, and then we have to maintain these customers because it takes a lot for someone’s shopping habits to change.”

Having only regular customers and no restaurant clients, put the food hub in a good position during the pandemic. Erickson noted that other food hubs in Montana catering to restaurants suffered during the pandemic as businesses struggled. In Billings, when grocery shelves started to empty, many turned to the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub.

Erickson said of the success during the pandemic, “People who didn’t cook too much or did convenience type of cooking now had more time. They probably have a higher appreciation for quality food. We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways, but we were also right there, ready to go when it all unfolded.”

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Stella Fong
Amy Brown likes supporting local farmers, growers and producers. Today she just picked up her order from Annika Charter-Williams at Evergreen Ace Hardware.

Annika Charter-Williams, another one of the founders, and owner of Charter Beef with her husband Michael Williams and father Steve Charter, in Roundup said of the hub, “It’s great for the local economy because we had an outlet to send our local community when the grocery stores were empty, but personally, for our ranch, cattle prices plummeted, and we decided to keep a truck load of fat cattle locally, and sell it through the food hub locally so we didn’t have to take this major price cut.”
Alan Christensen of ABC Produce grows fruits and vegetables for the food hub. As a social studies professor at Montana State University Billings, he shared, “The food supply is a matter of security. If they were shut down the trucks, it wouldn’t take long before the entire nation would be out of food because we have depended so much on food grown at great distances.”

Meats, produce, bread and cheese can be ordered online at yvfoodhub.com (Link to yvfoodhub.com) by Tuesday night. Pickup points are located at Evergreen Ace Hardware, Produce Depot, Swanky Roots and Red Lodge Ales Brewery in Red Lodge. Delivery is also available for an extra charge.

At the Evergreen Ace Hardware pickup point, customer Amy Brown said, “To be able to support producers, meat producers, vegetable growers is important, but more on a personal note, eating cleaner, eating more local, that’s good for the environment, it’s good for me, and it’s good for my family.”

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Stella Fong
My two bags of produce and meat in the trunk of my car after my Thursday night pickup.

Cori Day who worked on the feasibility study for the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub and have been coming to the hub since its inception, she said, “One of advantage is knowing where your food comes from and being able to ask questions about how it was raised and grown and what’s put into it and on it, and more importantly what’s not put into it or on it sometimes like the lack of chemicals and pesticides.”
She continued, “Also having that fresh produce. It tastes better and last longer because it is fresher and it's also the economic benefits. The money is staying here in our community and supporting a living wage for these farmers.”

The Yellowstone Valley Food Hub is taking root, supporting regional producers and the local community.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.