The Economic Potential of Western Montana’s Local Food and Farm Economy

BY JAN TUSICK

As an agriculturalist, a community organizer, and a passionate lover of good food I have joined many in pursuing the perspective that a robust Montana food and farm system will result in healthy people, healthy farms and healthy economies in our communities. But the recent study, Western Montana Local

Farm and Food Economy, conducted by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center has indicated that a lot of work remains to be done to develop a vibrant food and farm economy.

The study looked at western Montana and its farm and food system from an economic perspective and some interesting facts rose to the surface.  According to Meter’s study, 73% of western Montana’s farms and ranches reported net losses in 2007, and that they earned $76 million dollars less by selling commodities in 2008 than they earned in 1969. Western Montana farmers lose approximately $31 million each year and spend nearly $80 million buying farm supplies from suppliers outside the region. Our farmers in western Montana receive minimal federal support – only $5 million a year for the whole region. These statistics do not paint a rosy picture for our farmers and ranchers and certainly doesn’t create an incentive for future or beginning farmers. Yet while western Montana’s farmers are losing money, the population of western Montana has grown to nearly 1/3 of the state’s population. Consumers are spending approximately $749 million buying food each year. So where is our food coming from? Not from our farmers and ranchers. Consumers are spending approximately $680 million on food from outside the region.

Despite this gloomy picture of our overall farm economy there are reasons for optimism. In 2007, 489 farms sold $2 million of food directly to consumers. Statistically, direct sales represent only 1.4% of the region’s farm product sales. Yet, direct sales in western Montana are 3.5 times the national average, and direct sales increased by 22% between the years 2002 and 2007. This is exciting news because it reflects that Farmers and consumers in western Montana are innovating ways to recreate our regional food and farm economies. For example, 36% of state of Montana’s organic farms and community supported agriculture farms operate in western Montana. Robust farmers markets operate in Whitefish, Kalispell, Bigfork, Polson and Missoula. New farmers markets have emerged in Arlee and Ronan. In addition, western Montana has the only fruit and vegetable marketing / distribution cooperative in the state as well as the only value added fruit, vegetable and meat community food processing facility- the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center. If there was clear planning and investment in our region’s farm and food infrastructure could our agricultural economies stimulate economic recovery? According to Meter’s study, if western Montana consumers purchased only 15% of the food they need for home use directly from the region’s farmers, this would generate approximately $66 million of new farm income to our farmers and ranchers.

We can embrace the idea that we can actually bring wealth to our region and our farmers and ranchers by feeding ourselves. This is not a new concept but is one that is finally starting to get some legs.  Organizations such as the Alternative Energy Resource Organization, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, Nourish the Flathead, Lake County Community Development Food and Agriculture Center and others across the state are in the forefront of re- creating our local food systems.

On March 15th and 16th Ken Meter will be presenting the results of the Western Montana Local Farm and Food Economy study in Kalispell and Salish Kootenai College.  He will be back in May to participate in New West Festival, “Rise of the Rockies” conference as a keynote speaker on food and economy in our region. We invite you to join in these community discussions on the state of our food and farm economy. More so, we invite you to come with innovative ideas to keep building on the successes our direct market farmers and ranchers have made in connecting with members of our community who want to know where their food is coming from, how it is raised and how local food stimulates economic growth in our communities. Our region is rich with opportunity but we still have a long way to grow. Please contact Karl Sutton at (406) 676-5901 for more information on the Ken Meter’s speaking tour.

I’m Jan Tusick for the Lake County Community Development Food and Agriculture Development Center and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization that’s been building communities by linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions for over 37 years. To join the conversation and become part of the solution, call us in Helena at 443-7272.

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