Sell local, buy local

June 12, 2010

Before I became a Combs twenty-five years ago, my mother-in-law was my boss. She hired me to cook at the family guest ranch in Ennis, Montana during two college summers. “Jinny” was first “Mrs. Combs” to me.

Six days a week, the kitchen staff would be up at 6 am frying bacon so we would be ready to feed the wranglers by 7; Sundays afforded us just one more hour of rest. We’d then make breakfasts to order for our guests; eggs any style, pancakes of the day, toast and, more bacon. The waitresses and two cooks then would hope to be cleaning up by 9:30 am to start prepping for lunch and dinner. It was usually then Jinny would drop by the kitchen before heading to town to pick up groceries.

During those mid-morning hours she shared how to knead bread to the perfect consistency. Did you know that women have a “built in” advantage? Jinny taught me that “You pinch the dough, now pinch your… and if both feel the same, the dough is ready to rise!”

She would often add a few of her favorite left-over recipes to the conversation, and when prodded, I learned her philosophy on leadership. After taking over a dude ranch at 29 years old with no previous experience, Jinny had learned the hard way who to hire and how to keep your employees productive. She would have us all giggling, sharing how in the early weeks of her first summer, the head cook suddenly took off with a ranch hand left behind no note, only her dentures over the stove! Jinny got a crash course on cooking and careful hiring that year.

“Attitude is everything,” was Jinny’s assessment. “I can teach anyone how to do the work, just not how to work!”

Another clear leadership value of Jinny’s was and is “buy local.” I grew up in downtown Minneapolis, so this idea was a novelty to me almost thirty years ago. Jinny was adamant — we bought everything we could in Ennis. With a population maybe 500 at the time, Ennis was our community and we needed to support it. I found this funny since I was sure toilet paper would be cheaper in Bozeman, the nearest city some 50 miles away. We had to go to Bozeman to pick up guests, why not shop there too?

Today, with internet shopping and Costco, Jinny’s modicum for running a rural business is now becoming a critical philosophy. I recently facilitated a working group session on preventing obesity in Montana. There I learned, not buying local has created “food deserts” in rural communities across the state.  As we now purchase the majority of our food from outside our communities and are unable to sustain small town grocery stores, the only ready food choices become what is sold at the local gas station. Corn dogs have replaced fresh produce as the affordable or even available choice for dinner across Montana, and in many communities around the country.

Mothers, and even mother-in-laws, deserve to know that their advice was heard and deemed correct. I think this video illustrates a magical intersection of  Jinny’s two mentioned leadership lessons:


To learn more about creating local healthy food choices check out The Center for Rural Affairsand Grow Montana as interesting examples. How might we support the health of our local communities? What are your leadership values?

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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