I love the change of the seasons. In the Flathead we see the farm fields change from white to brown to black to green; and eventually to many colors of bounty before we go back to brown and start again.
I’ve always had a thing for what I like to call living landscapes. Not that wild nature isn’t alive, but I like experiencing landscapes that result from the symbiosis of man and nature; especially agricultural land. Maybe it is because of my Dutch upbringing, but even in Montana research shows that both residents and visitors love the combination of the wild and the pastoral character of our great State.
And in Montana, we have lots of agri-culture to be proud of: a growing economy and a wonderful diversity from 100.000 acre ranches and huge grain farms to 1 acre goose egg farms and hydroponic greenhouses. Apart from the obvious products of our farms, we should not underestimate the other positive effects to our economy, our ecology and landscapes. And where for some decades farms seemed to be seen more as a semi-industrial food producing sector, the agri that supports our culture is coming back. Farms and ranches are reconnecting with their communities, and communities are reaching out to farms and ranches. And don’t be mistaken, in several regions of Montana, growing tensions between development and agriculture (or open space) are forcing us all to meet at the table anyway. If we want to keep agriculture viable in areas like the Flathead and around the bigger cities, we need to collaborate on topics like infrastructure and zoning. But let’s focus on the positive, because when it comes to what people want, and what farms have lots of, there is SO much to be excited about.
Consumer trends in the Western world have shown us for years now that people are seeking more authentic and real experiences; maybe it is because our life is increasingly global and virtual?
And somehow, all the aspects of agricultural life fit that need perfectly: school kids touring farms to learn about how their food is grown, eating local products at a restaurant, tourists helping out on a working ranch, shopping at the abundant farmers’ markets or eating a 5 star dinner in an orchard.
This new type of agriculture is referred to as multifunctional agriculture. For increasing numbers of farmers, this is providing a new way of holistic farming that reconnects farmers and their communities.
The European Union has seen how vibrant and diversified agriculture can strengthen rural communities and has actively stimulated this multifunctional model for agriculture for over 15 years. In nearly all European countries, this has resulted in spectacular results for both production agriculture and visitor- oriented farms; in European countries the size of Flathead County, such farms contribute over 400 million dollars annually to the tourism and recreation economy.
So why not Montana with a nature and farm loving population and 11 million visitors annually?! Let’s make it happen in our own unique way. And the exciting thing is that is actually already happening. In several areas of Montana farms large and small are showing their ingenuity and coming up with wonderful new products and ways to combine local and worldwide markets. And for those farms that are looking for ways to diversify their business to serve local markets and visitors , there are now classes in several community colleges and non-profits, like the Field day in Missoula on May 28th, about Diversifying Farms (as organized by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition).
You know what? These multifaceted farms have been proven to not only sustain current farms and farmers, but they tend to also generate new employment, new ways for family members to stay and work on the farm and to open the dialogue for a sustainable type of food system for all of us.
If this commentary raises your interest to go visit a farm in your area, check out wonderful resources such as the Flathead farm hands map or websites like Abundant Montana or visitmt.com.
When we drive around Montana, my kids love discussing what goes on in the fields outside their windows: “why does the farmer burn his field”, “what are those pretty but smelly yellow flowers” and “hey that tractor looks like Frank from the movie Cars”. And after I chatted with a befriended sheep farmer in the local diner the other day, my eight year old son said “I would like to see that farmer more often”. It makes me happy to see that farmers are still up there as role models and I hope it always stays that way.
I’m Maarten Fischer for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization that’s been Montana’s hub for sustainable communities for 40 years. If you’d like to get involved, check us out at www.aeromt.org. That’s a-e-r-o-m-t-dot-o-r-g.
This commentary originally aired on May 22, 2014 on Montana Public Radio.