Over the last decade, a movement to build a vibrant local and regional food system has gained tremendous momentum in Western Montana. As someone involved in this effort, I smile when I step back and look at how many pieces of the localization puzzle have begun to fall into place. While there is much to celebrate, the challenges have become clearer too. In the face of rapid population growth and development, one of the biggest hurdles of all may be saving fertile soil -- the medium in which our local food system must be rooted. Yet, opportunities for innovative and collaborative problem solving present themselves.
Advocates have done a good job of creating markets for local foods, and the examples are inspiring. Several towns in the region -- from Noxon to Polson to Hamilton -- host farmers' markets. In Missoula, two successful markets bustle with activity during the season, as over 100 vendors sell veggies, cheeses, fruits, meats, eggs and more. Area restaurants are increasingly buying local food and featuring it on their menus. Grocery stores have gotten in on the act too. So-called "farm-to-cafeteria" programs serve local food in dining halls at Salish Kootenai College, the University of Montana, and public schools in Missoula and Alberton. The Western Montana Growers Cooperative helps meet the needs of restaurants, schools and colleges by collectively marketing and distributing the produce of the co-op's members. This list of innovation could go on.
"Buy local" seems to be a powerful message in Montana where we tend to have a strong sense of place and a good dose of common sense. But the local food movement is about more than what consumers buy, although that is an important part of the equation. We are literally trying to build a local food economy that can serve and even expand these new markets in terms of production, processing and distribution. Moving toward a system of greater self-reliance when it comes to food -- an essential need -- increases our security, as factors like climate change, food safety, and rising oil prices raise serious questions about the sustainability of the global food system we have come to depend on. To meet these goals, though, we need to protect working landscapes now.
Soil and Sprawl
It's no secret that counties in Western Montana are growing. Fast. Between 1970 and 2004, Missoula County's population increased by 70 percent. By 2025, there may be as many as 132,000 people living here, up from just over 100,000 today. Rates of growth are similar or even higher in some neighboring counties. But it's not only the growth that raises thorny issues. The real culprit is sprawl: low-density development spreading the population out over a wide area, leap-frogging away from city and town centers, and often leading to an even greater reliance on cars to move people from their homes to shops and work.
Sprawl devours the countryside. In Missoula County, 15,660 acres were subdivided between 1990 and 2005. And most of that was outside the city limits of Missoula. Since 1970, the acreage of residential land per person has more than doubled in Missoula County (the average size for new lots is now 2.2 acres). It appears that far more land is being converted for housing developments than is necessary.
Several factors make farm and ranchlands the most sought-after for these new developments. For starters, agricultural land is flat and well-drained, and hence is cheaper and easier to build upon. Development can be constrained by land ownership; for example, about half of Missoula County is public land, making it unavailable. Another quarter or so of the land is owned by timber companies (mostly Plum Creek), and six percent is tribal land. The 19 percent remaining is non-corporate, non-tribal private land. These lands are generally located on the valley floors, often contain agricultural soils, and are in or near towns and cities. In short: ground zero when it comes to development pressure.
Complex social and economic factors are at play too. Right now, agricultural lands are usually more affordable to developers than to farmers and ranchers. With development pressures pushing up land prices, new or expanding agriculturalists find it hard, if not impossible, to buy land and pay for it through agriculture, especially when economic returns are low. This economic reality is complicated by the fact that the average age of agricultural producers in Missoula County is 56. That means many of them are rightfully thinking about retiring and getting the years of equity they have built up out of the land. Thankfully, interviews with farmers and ranchers in Missoula County show that many of them do not want to be the generation that "sells out." As one area farmer said in an interview:
The biggest thing that weighs on my mind is that you have his grandfather, my grandfather, my dad, and now me. And I don't want to be the one that goes, 'Okay, let's just cash out, put the money in the bank' and you know, live high off the hog... I feel a sense of responsibility... If you think about all the blood, the sweat, the tears, the child death, cold winters, hot summers, the Depression, two world wars, all those things. That weighs heavily on me. Anonymous Farmer
So, on the one hand, growth makes farmland worth more and selling for development becomes tempting. It may even seem like the only way out. On the other hand, a way of life and a legacy handed down from generation to generation is hard to walk away from.
While farm and ranch families struggle with these difficult decisions, there is a growing recognition among policy makers, innovative developers and local food advocates that our agricultural soils are a finite and irreplaceable resource. Fertile soils take thousands of years to develop based on a combination of geology, climate, and biology. Each soil is unique, with its own character, history, and abilities to support plants and animals. The best agricultural soils are "loams" -- a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay particles; humus (organic matter); roots; and small organisms. Loams have what farmers refer to as "good tilth," a mellow structure and quality that is prized. Loams also have a favorable porosity that stores moisture but drains excess water. Well-managed agricultural land not only has productive capacity; it also provides so-called ecosystem services, like flood control, groundwater recharge, and wildlife habitat.
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Grantsdale loam. Alberton very fine sandy loam. Bigarm gravelly loam. These and other agricultural soils make up only eight percent of the land in Missoula County. That isn't much to work with, and actually some of these lands have already been developed. No inventory evaluating the current status of agricultural lands exists yet, so we don't really know what remains in good quality.
What we do know is that, so far, no one has been able to manufacture fertile soil. Ruined soils can sometimes be reclaimed, but it is very costly. Preventing destruction is the best strategy. But how?
Crafting Innovative Strategies Members of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) have been learning about tools that other localities are using to protect agricultural land and thinking about how they might be tailored to our local area. Here are four ideas:
* A Mitigation Ordinance. This tool aims to discourage non-agricultural development of fertile soils and to ensure that farmland loss is mitigated by permanent farmland protection elsewhere nearby. Local governments require development proposals to moderate impacts to agricultural land (such as clustering homes on part of the land to keep other areas open) or compensate for that impact (such as paying for the preservation of comparable farmland off-site). For example, in Davis, California, two acres must be preserved for every acre converted to non-agricultural uses. Perhaps fees could also be assessed to assist farmers in acquiring or leasing land. * Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). This market-driven technique relies on the voluntary, market-based exchange of development rights between rural landowners and urban developers. TDRs can minimize the conversion of rural lands by transferring the potential for development from areas where agricultural lands are to be preserved (sending areas) to areas where concentrated and high-density growth is desired (receiving areas). Developers compensate landowners for their rights according to market rates, usually resulting in the placement of perpetual easements on the preserved land. To be most effective, the sending and receiving areas should be within the same planning region. In Missoula County, TDRs may be difficult to implement because much of the county is not zoned.
* Land Link Montana. A land link is a matching service that connects landowners who want to see their land remain in agriculture with producers seeking access to agricultural land. The two parties then create a business agreement, such as a lease or sale. Land links facilitate successful farm/ranch transfers by providing: technical assistance on lease agreements and loans; referral networks to agriculturally savvy lawyers, accountants, and lenders; apprenticeship opportunities for beginning farmers. Informed by extensive research on how best to set up the program, CFAC is launching Land Link Montana in 2008. * Incubator Farms. A healthy local food system not only requires farmland, but also a new generation of farmers, particularly those who want to grow for local markets. Incubator farms lease land to new farmers, provide technical and market development assistance, facilitate sharing of equipment (which reduces start-up costs) and create an opportunity for farmers to learn from their own and others' experiences. Then, once their businesses are viable, they spin off of the incubator farm and find their own land. Although creating an incubator farm will require major donations and capital investment initially, over time the fees earned from the farmers can lead to financial sustainability for the operation of the program.
It's Not Inevitable
Like it or not, our region is probably going to continue to grow and development pressures will remain high. But the loss of agricultural land is not an inevitable part of the process. Farmlands have social, economic, ecological, cultural and historic value for the community. Those values suggest opportunities for designing creative solutions so that we can maintain agricultural lands and provide housing in ways that enhance quality of life. Strategies that protect the land base can -- indeed must -- be combined with those that ensure producers can access land and also promote markets for local food as a way to improve farm viability.
We cannot predict the future -- but we do know that people will have to eat and that food will be grown on soil. Our options are to protect our fertile soils here and now -- with all of us, not just farmers, supporting the process -- or to pay later when food shortages and oil prices increase the cost of food coming to us from far-flung anonymous sources. I, for one, prefer to promote preservation of good land now and ensure greater community self-reliance by meeting a larger part of our food needs locally. And I'm banking on the idea that there are others out there who agree.
Neva Hassanein is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana and a member of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula County.
© 2008 Edible Missoula, LLC