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Uncommon Ground

Economics of Food and Farm

Local Food

You can smell the scent of spring in the air, see it in the yellowing willow, and hear it in the chirping birds. Spring signals a turning point in life and growth of all things renewed. The produce at the local grocer suddenly looks smaller. This is an indication that newer crops are being planted again in California and production is leaving the fields of Mexico.

It is not uncommon for the line of produce trucks entering the United States to be miles long. In a shocking visualization of our food import system, Arizona recently opened a second Port of Entry complete with three lanes to accommodate commercial traffic. Twenty-five percent of fruit and vegetables entering the U.S. travels through the single largest doorway in Nogales, Ariz.

The warm weather and cheap Mexican labor make corporate food production for Americans pretty enticing. But importing food also makes America more dependent and globalization has led to food traveling an average 2,000 miles before reaching the consumer.

For Flathead market farmers, the seeding season has begun. The alliums were first: onions, leeks, shallots and scallions. Not far behind are the brassicas like cabbages and kales, then lettuce, chard and beets. The garlic will soon poke its way out through the snow. Before we know it the farmers’ markets in Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell will be budding with locals hankering for the first local food of the season.

Ken Meter is one of the most renowned food system economists in the United States. His work integrates market analysis, business development and social concerns. He is president of Crossroads Resource Center and has 40 years of rural community capacity building experience. He taught economics at the University of Minnesota as well as the Harvard Kennedy School. And next week he will be in the Flathead.

According to Meter, Western Montana families purchase $750 million in food annually. A few years ago, nearly 500 farms sold $2 million of food directly to consumers, a 20 percent increase from five years earlier. Direct sales represent a meager 1 percent of the region’s farm product sales, yet Western Montana direct sales are nearly four times the national average. Farmers and consumers in Western Montana are innovating ways to recreate our regional food and farm economies. More than one-third of Montana’s organic farms and community-supported agriculture farms operate in Western Montana.

During a recent debate at the Montana Legislature, a lawmaker pointed out that 15 members of the House and 11 members of the Senate received federal farm subsidies. Judging by the fact that recipients stood to defend taking unearned federal income, it’s clear that farmers in the Legislature are not ashamed to get help from the Feds. But accepting subsidies for the farm is no indication of profitability. According to Meter, three-quarters of Western Montana’s farms and ranches recently reported net losses.

Nourish the Flathead (www.nourishtheflathead.org) is a local organization that connects people with local food. These good folks partnered with the Flathead Valley Community College to till a community garden on campus. Nourish the Flathead’s inspiration also supports community gardens in Whitefish and soon Columbia Falls. The organization is but one sponsor that is bringing Ken Meter to the Flathead. It invites you to join in discussing strategies to increase local food in the region by rebuilding a strong and vibrant agricultural economy that helps make the middle class more secure.

Everyone eats, and food is the magic ingredient that connects us as a society. Ken Meter will present his findings on our region and facilitate an economic food and farm discussion Tuesday, March 15, at 6 p.m. at the KM Building in Kalispell. From bacon to burgers to broccoli, the discussion will help answer the question of “who is your farmer?” The economic implications of a local food system are critically important to the Flathead. Our food systems are vital, relevant, and offer a timely piece to the puzzle in rebuilding a stronger, local economy to the betterment of all.

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