Bozeman's Community Food Co-op has already doubled the amount of local produce it purchased last year through its Grow Local program and looks to add even more before year's end.

The manager of the co-op's Central Kitchen, Christina Waller, solved the mystery of how to offer local produce year-round about two years ago, after completing a master's degree in sustainable agriculture at Montana State University and a summer working on a farm. She spoke with people at the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center — a food processing, research and development facility — about how processing could be used at the co-op.

After learning how processing might work, the co-op received earlier this year a $50,000 Growth Through Agriculture Grant through the Montana Agriculture Council to pay for processing and freezing equipment. It allowed the co-op's Grow Local program to hit its stride in July.

So far, the co-op has bought and processed 60,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, Waller said. It expects to add another 10,000 pounds before the year is out. Last year the organization purchased 30,000 pounds of local produce.

“(Customers) really love that. I think with people, there's a lot more sensitivity and awareness in the local food economy than there was five years ago. A lot more people are hip to it and want to see it,” said Kelly Dean Wiseman, general manager of the co-op.

The fruit and vegetables are sent through a processor nicknamed Bertha, which has the ability to process 5,000 pounds in an hour, and then flash frozen, vacuum packed and stored in a large cooler that keeps the greens chilled in negative temperatures. The faster the vegetables are frozen and the colder the temperature, the crisper and more nutritious they are when thawed, Waller explained.

Right now, the co-op is testing out the process to see what does and doesn't work. Wiseman said his long term hope for the program is to create an easily replicable process that can be taught to other large kitchens, such as MSU, Bozeman Deaconess Hospital and area school systems.

“We're in it for the long haul and committing to see how it shakes out. We'll modify it probably each year we do it because it is agriculture and we're learning what processes work and what processes don't,” Wiseman said.

Jason Bacaj may be reached at jasonb@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.