Although agriculture is Montana’s largest industry, the facts about our food system illustrate a frightening disconnect between what we produce, and what we eat. The majority of the crops raised on Montana’s sixty million acres of farm and rangeland are exported as bulk raw commodities, such as wheat, barley, and feeder calves.
Montana processes less than 9% of our agricultural products before they leave the state, and as a result, over 86% of the food we eat must be imported.
In this system, farmers have lost a significant measure of control over their products and consumers have largely lost access to fresh local food. Conversely, a sustainable Montana-based food system is a familiar vision. Seventy years ago food processing was Montana’s number one employer, and 70% of our food was produced in state. Local markets help to avoid the global fluctuations that are beyond the control of communities and states. Montana’s local food system must balance the benefits of serving our citizens with healthy local farm products as well as the benefits of some export markets.
AERO’s programming encompasses several projects that expand sustainable agriculture in Montana, and focus on redeveloping local food systems to support both our rural and urban communities. Many AERO members employ the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, and share their experiences and findings on the community level in order to protect natural resources and create profitable agricultural businesses.
How does AERO help redevelop community-based food systems in Montana?
- Abundant Montana: AERO created this PREMIER directory of farms, ranches, local food businesses, and agritourism opportunities over 20 years ago! Now online with an interactive map, the directory is a valuable resource for consumers and producers alike. Update or submit your listing here!
- Agritourism: In 2017, AERO released Developing Montana’s Agritourism: A Resource Manual, the state’s first ever guide to connecting farmers and ranchers with basic information on how to start their own agritourism business through the process of building a business plan, listing important contacts and resources, and inspiring them by sharing existing agritourism successes around the state. The Manual was developed by AERO staff with the support of the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program, and the Agritourism Working Group of the Montana Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, MSU Extension, Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Food and Ag Development Center Network, and the Montana Farmers Union.
- Montana Farm to School: AERO is a member of the Montana Farm to School Leadership Team, working with school nutrition programs, community nonprofit organizations, school administrators, teachers, parents, farmers, ranchers, policymakers and state agencies to explore strategies for connecting children to their food sources.
- Grow Montana: AERO is a founding member of the statewide food policy coalition Grow Montana, which has conducted food systems research, developed Montana’s institutional market for local foods, and helped support food and agricultural entrepreneurs around the state.
- Montana FoodCorps: AERO supports NCAT’s Montana FoodCorps, which is a team of trained volunteers working on local food projects in 9 rural Montana communities. AERO helps network the FoodCorps team and provide them with the resources needed to continue their leadership in Montana’s local food movement. Visit the Montana FoodCorps website to learn more about their exciting work.
- Montana Food Economy Initiative: AERO houses the Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI), which supports the development of a regional food economy through the use of values-based supply chains and information sharing. The forum brings together people involved in all aspects of the food supply chain, from field to fork, to build collaborative partnerships and strengthen communication through regional groups and issue-specific working groups.
- Farm to Cafeteria Manual for Montana: AERO and NCAT have also collaborated on a how-to guide for producers, foodservice, professionals, and local leaders interested in getting more fresh, local food into schools and other institutions
- Farmers Markets: At the start of 2018, AERO completed an update of Starting a Farmers Market Guide on how to start a new farmers market and it should be available by the end of 2017. Additionally, You can find a list of Montana farmers markets here
- Clarifying Food Safety Regulations: AERO has helped Montana’s state agencies identify and address some of the challenges farmers and ranchers face in navigating laws and regulations that pertain to marketing products directly to consumers. In 2016, AERO offered a series of five workshops around the state to help farmers, producers, and business-people better understand and use updated food regulations. Visit the Montana Food Economy Initiative for continued details, and check back for 2017 Workshops.
- Expanding Opportunities for Poultry Producers: AERO has been a key partner with the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative in the development of a mobile poultry processing unit. AERO also helped develop and publish the Montana Poultry Growers Mobile Processing Unit guide, and supports training and outreach for the MPU.
- Helena Community Gardens: AERO c0-founded the Helena Community Gardens (formerly the Growing Community Project), which is building community gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood in Helena, Montana.
- Farm Tours: Every year AERO holds farm tours across the state, typically in the summer and autumn. The aim of these tours is three-fold: to connect farmers and community members, to highlight innovative work on farms and ranches across the state, and provide field-based education to farmers and ranchers. Click here to learn about upcoming and past farm tours.
- Building a Community Garden in Montana by Katherine Grear Hutchison is a manual containing tools, examples, resources and strategies for developing, funding and leading a community garden project in Montana. The manual is available to download as a PDF, or call us at (406) 443-7272 to order a hard copy notebook.
- Specialty Crops Funding: The Montana Department of Agriculture has developed a program to help enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops in Montana. For purposes of the program, specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, peas and lentils, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).
- USDA Farm Service Agency in Montana: Administers farm loans, commodity price support, disaster relief and conservation programs through FSA local offices across Montana. Visit their website here. Find the list of USDA agencies serving Montana here.