In western Montana, housing developments are swallowing agricultural lands, fewer people are staying in the farming profession, almost half of Missoula County's food processing plants have closed, and area residents are becoming more reliant on food that's shipped over 1,500 miles or more.
While the facts are not surprising to people who have witnessed the changing landscape, the consequences are startling.
Missoula and surrounding areas are heading toward a food production crisis, said Missoula County horticulturist Helen Atthowe at a press conference Wednesday.
Where we get our food is becoming less and less secure, Atthowe said. "This should scare a lot of us."
The grim news is among the information compiled from a yearlong research project called the Missoula County Community Food Assessment.
The outcome of the research is a report called "Our Foodshed in Focus: Missoula County Food and Agriculture by the Numbers," which uses U.S. census reports and data gathered from public records to describe patterns in the local food and farming system, and how these have changed over time.
University of Montana students, guided by faculty in UM's environmental studies program and the department of social work, researched and wrote most of the report. Many of the topics and research assistance was provided by a community steering committee, which includes local farmers, chefs, conservation groups, community groups and nonprofit social services agencies.
"This is the first time anyone has complied all of this kind of data into one place," said Neva Hassanein, a UM environmental professor who has helped spearhead the effort.
"By having something like this readily available, stakeholders in the issues - all of us who are concerned about our food - will have a tangible tool to discuss the problems and discuss how to address them," Hassanein said.
"How healthy our food system is determines how healthy we are," she said. "Understanding how our foodshed has changed is essential for understanding how to secure it."
Some quick facts found in the report:
- Since 1950, there has been a 19 percent decrease in the number of farms in Missoula County.
- The total acreage in farming dropped from a high of nearly 397,000 acres in 1954 to just over 262,000 in 1997 - a 34 percent decrease.
- The average size of farms has dropped from 1,038 acres in 1969 to 544 acres in 1997.
- The vast majority of farm operators make most of their living from off-farm jobs or income.
- As elsewhere in the nation, the average age of farmers in Missoula County is rising, from age 50 in 1950 to age 56 in 1997.
- The number of food manufacturers, which transform livestock and agricultural goods into products for consumption, declined from 16 in 1959 to nine in 2001.
- Demands of the food system has increased as Missoula County's population has grown by 114 percent between 1960 and 2000.
- Hunger and food insecurity are largely a function of the ability to buy food. In 2000, nearly 15 percent of individuals and 9 percent of families in the county lived below the poverty line.
Although the report clearly shows Missoula is fast losing the ability to control its food supply, there are some bright spots. Missoula's farmer's market continues to grow and offer more locally grown food each summer, and while farms over 100 acres are disappearing, farms 10 to 49 acres in size are increasing.
The report is both disarming and a wake-up call to everyone who lives in western Montana, said Josh Slotnick, farm director of Garden City Harvest.
"In 1950, the biggest employment sector was in food production," Slotnick said. "Now basically there is none - the agricultural sector is dying.
"Eastern Montana is emptying out and western Montana is filling up," he said. "Re-invigorating local and statewide agriculture and re-establishing farm programs can solve a multitude of problems by creating jobs and keeping open space in production."
Slotnick has faith the newly released report will be used to identify and prioritize Missoula's food issues and prompt some effective steps to mitigate the growing, real concerns about the area's food production.
The report will be bolstered by further research, which is expected to result in a release of more findings and recommendations this fall, said Hassanein.
That work will address agricultural viability and residents' concerns about food, and will address what is needed for viable and sustainable, commercial food production in the Missoula area. It will also examine existing barriers and assets to creating a more sustainable food system.
"I feel really excited about the work that's happened and about the reports that will be coming out," Hassanein said.
"I think there's a growing interest and awareness of how central and important food is to our community," she said. "Hopefully more people will understand that a healthy food system is our lifeblood."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reading this article, my thoughts were that it shows a microcosmic view of what is happening all over the world. Big business is causing so much hardship and despair with their mono-agriculture and subsequent low prices that young rural people are being discouraged from following in their parents footsteps because they see no future in farming.
We therefore have this situation where there is no impetus to entice people to work the land, earn a living or create healthy food for the local population.
Transporting food longer distances creates problems with freshness with the result being more preservatives need to be added to our food so it doesn't 'go off'. The more preservatives, the bigger the danger to our health.
The health of the world's population is becoming more perilous and that should not be happening! With the knowledge we have at our fingertips we should be capable of producing more and healthier food for local consumption everywhere. We know that fresh food creates healthy bodies and minds, therefore we need to alter our attitude towards local agriculture and redefine what we really want from life.