Building a Resilient Bitterroot

The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center is a new and active organization, located in an old farmhouse in Hamilton.  Samantha O’Byrne is its founder and director, and shared her thoughts with us about the Cottage Food Law workshop AERO held last spring.  I asked where the name came from, and Samantha said, “Robert O’Hara was the first mayor of Hamilton, and Marcus Daly’s attorney.”  He built the farmhouse back in 1896 and its regality has been well-preserved over the years.

Samantha tells us she has been on the path of sustainability all her life, and has lived in the Bitterroot for quite a while, operating a small retail shop in Hamilton for 13 years.  “Ravalli County has a lot of unemployment and poverty, and lots of people getting unhealthy food,” she said.  She began offering healthy food education and resources to all economic strata and age groups in the community, and The O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center grew from those workshops and programs.   

The O’Hara Center connects people to local foods, and their mission, “Empowering a Resilient Community,” is an admirable one.  Their long term vision is to utilize and develop available resources to benefit community through education, resource sharing and demonstration gardens.  They do this in a manner which builds local economy, promotes healthy food options, and develops regional self-sufficiency. Like AERO, they are a membership-based organization; O’Hara’s membership is on a sliding fee schedule, with the intent that people join in at a level that fits their ability to give.  Samantha wanted to be sure we shared that “scholarship memberships are available in order to ensure that we can be inclusive to families and individuals who may not otherwise be able to participate in our programs.”

During AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshop series, the Center was in the midst of relicensing their commercial kitchen, so they attended the workshop in Arlee hoping to learn how the new laws would fit in with the kitchen upgrades and remodel.  Through workshop discussions, they eventually redirected their intentions for the kitchen, and built an education-based kitchen instead of a wholly commercial kitchen open to the public.  Updating the past licensing information at the kitchen delayed the opening, but it is now properly licensed and members have access to all the kitchen’s tools, and all other shared resources.


The workshop provided some great networking opportunities, Samantha told us, and the information sharing between sanitarians and other local organizations was valuable.  Samantha feels that networking in the Bitterroot is not difficult, and there are many producers and growers in the area that are aiming for the same “local foods” goals.  “It is easy in our area to access producers of local healthy food options,” she says, compared to other “food deserts” in Montana.  

Samantha noted that workshop presenters received so many questions about the law, some of which did not yet have clear-cut answers or guidelines, that attendees felt a follow up class was important.  The many nuances of the law are still being hashed out, and attendees hope for updates, or more detailed classes.  (Good news!  AERO received a Grant for more workshops, to be held this fall!)

This summer, the O’Hara Center will be hosting a Wednesday Farmers’ Market, brought about by the need for a mid-week market.  They will promote a “regional food” market, which includes the nearby Lemhi county in Idaho, and include  a “truth in labeling” project which will provide information such as “organic,” or “grass-fed” at each vendor spot.

The O’Hara Center is membership based, and joining gives you access to discounted workshops and tool rentals.  They also offer truck and cider press sharing, as part of an effort to help those with storage space or financial limitations.  Samantha’s passion for healthy, local food was evident in our conversation, and a look at their website shows a full set of workshops aimed at every age and ability.  Check it out at 

We wish the Board and Members of the O’Hara Commons and Sustainability Center the best of luck with the new programs in 2017!


Distilling Local Products at The Gulch

While having a cocktail in Gulch Distiller’s tasting room, you might look through the glass to the distilling room and notice the unique elk mount with one antler drooping low over its eye socket, and then you might see the dried herbs hanging a few feet away.  And then you’d realize that the large tanks and urns in there are making what you’re sipping.  This business is definitely a local and unique treasure in Helena and across the state.

Steffen Rasile recently treated AERO staff to a tour of Helena’s only micro-distillery.  Steffen and business partner Tyrrell Hibbard purchased the distillery in 2015 with a shared passion for whiskey and quality spirits.  The two Helena natives own and operate the business, fermenting, distilling, and bottling on site.  They use only Montana grown grains in their grain-based spirits, and aim to eventually source as many of their products from Montana as possible.

Steffen attended one of AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshops in 2016 on behalf of The Gulch, and we followed up with him and Tyrrell this winter to see what they’ve put into practice from the workshop, and how AERO can help with future resources and course offerings.  They went to the workshop to learn what equipment they would need to make infrastructure improvements and, eventually, new products.  They were curious about stainless appliances and sinks, and what their options are for sourcing local products to make syrups and liquors.

What the two found was that there are very few detailed rules written down, and product acquisition and legality is on a case by case basis due to the variable cottage food law requirements.  “There are no checklists for small businesses to follow in order to purchase and use locally grown or harvested products,” Steffen said.  “Can we buy lavender or basil from a Farmers’ Market vendor to use in our syrups or drinks?”  Or would that be illegal because the farmers have an exception under the food law, but Gulch does not.  We asked the Department of Public Health and Human Services for clarification, and Nina Heinzinger of the Food & Consumer Safety department provided some information.  Nina told us: “For retail food operations, the business owner must buy his food from approved sources.  Usually locally grown produce (such as from a CSA or farmers’ market) is approved, but the operator should check with their local sanitarian to verify this. Many operations use locally grown produce on their menus, and some contract with CSAs for produce.”  She went on to explain that an example of an unapproved source would be food prepared in a home kitchen.  “The main concern is that the owner maintains a record (i.e. bill of sale, invoice) to be able to track their sources of their food,” she told us.  More guidance and documents explaining the Cottage Food laws can be found on DPHHS website.

Another piece of advice when purchasing fresh produce is to ask the grower if he or she is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified or if they follow the Good Agricultural Practices guidelines.  This helps demonstrate that the grower is carrying out on-farm food safety practices.  When performing updates to the Abundant Montana Directory, web designers added a “GAP certified” spot in our directory, so producers can be searchable that way!  

Steffen and Tyrrell aspire to use as many Montana products as possible, and are working on securing botanicals for products like absinthe, fernet, and aperitifs.  

Hanging in the corner of the shop are mugwort, mint, wormwood, and chamomile, which are used in the Fernet and test liqueurs and grown around Helena.  “We haven’t been able to find all the herbs and botanicals we want; somehow we need to tell farmers what to grow,” Steffen admits.  “For 40 cases of gin, we need about 60 lbs of botanicals.”

The distillery currently uses wheat from Townsend Seeds, and the Great Falls company MaltEurop (suppliers for Coors and Budweiser) reserves malt for Montana breweries and distilleries.  One of the appliances we noticed in the distillery room was a grain mill, where Steffen says they coarsely mill their own wheat and barley.  “I have a finer-grind mill at home for baking flour,” Steffen grinned.

During the process of malting and brewing, the liquid by-products left are rich in protein and fibers, and this spent grain is picked up by a Helena pig farmer.  “Otherwise I guess we would have to pour it down a drain,” he admits. This arrangement works out to be a good deal for both parties! Happy people, happy pigs.

Steffen mentioned he would appreciate AERO’s assistance in finding answers to their questions about local products and producers, and hopes we continue to build his supply of sustainable Montana items, which might help with their never ending needs for botanicals!

Gulch Distillery is mostly a local liquor provider, though they hope to expand out of Montana and onto craft distillery shelves around the west.  Right now you can find their liquors in Helena at The Windbag, On Broadway, Silver Star Steakhouse, and Miller’s Crossing.  Or head to their business location in the former Montana Distillery and Bottling Warehouse at the north end of Helena’s main, historic gulch.  They’re just downstream from the strike that turned a gulch into the mining camp that became a state capital.



In researching Steffen’s food law questions, we are reminded of the clear need for a forum to answer questions about the laws, and using local products.  AERO manages the website, and will continue to publish these discussions on there. Visit the forum to post your own question, and we’ll help connect you to answers!

Recommended Energy Reads

Reading Resources on Electricity, Renewables, EVs and Batteries

It’s hard to keep up with developments in renewable energy, electric vehicles and batteries. These new technologies are developing rapidly, dropping in price and starting to play a significant role in our national energy policy.

Leading thinkers are increasing saying that these three technologies are starting to grow exponentially in the marketplace and will disrupt the fossil fuels market much sooner than expected. It seems like every week there is some startling news about how strongly renewables are performing.

To get you started, here are 3 recent articles:

This is just a small sampling. To read more, I’ve assembled a list of my favorite journalists and writers, websites, websites and videos, found below.

These are exciting times in the energy world, plenty of thrills and some heartbreak too.

Jim Baerg ETF Co-Chair

March, 2017

Journalists and Writers:

Dave Roberts at

Joe Romm on Climate issues and tech developments in response to climate are at

John Farrell at ILSR on democratizing energy:

Richard Heinberg at


Websites covering Energy and Technology:   News, Tech developments and Business. I get a weekly feed of news items.

Rocky Mountain Institute  The American Solar Energy Society; You can subscribe to Solar@Work, their twice monthly bulletin   American Wind Energy Assn. There is a blog and news.



Tony Sheba on “The Solar Disruption”

TED: A 40 Year Plan for Energy

Bloomberg: The Peak Oil Myth and the Rise of the Electric Car



A Retrospective Analysis of the Benefits and Impacts of U.S. Renewable Portfolio Standards January 2016 NREL

SHINING REWARDS The Value of Rooftop Solar Power for Consumers and Society 2016 Edition, Environment America Research & Policy Center


Bloomberg: Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis

Off-Grid Solar Power vs Grid-Connected Solar Power In The 21st Century

Expect the Unexpected: The Disruptive Power of Low-carbon Technology


Polling: How popular is RE?

Post Election National Clean Energy Survey

Ohio GOP voters support green energy, efficiency programs and customer choice

Public opinion on renewables and other energy sources