Are Local Foods the Future of Agriculture?

By Beacon Staff

Ken Meter, a nationally recognized food system analyst, arrived in Kalispell with sobering statistics and a message: Local foods may save us from ourselves and create a more economically viable system of agriculture.

Speaking to an overflowing crowd of roughly 150 people at the KM Theatre on March 15, Meter said 50 percent of students in the United States qualify for free and reduced lunches, there are 3,000 food poisonings each year and medical costs related to obesity exceed $170 billion in a single year.

To him, those numbers are signs that the nation’s system of producing and distributing food is seriously flawed. Meter also said the modern globalized system of agriculture is economically unsustainable. He presented a graph showing an annual trend agricultural costs outpacing profits across the nation and in Montana.

Based on his research, Meter said the majority of Western Montana’s farmers are reporting net losses. Western Montana, in his study, is defined as Ravalli, Missoula, Lake, Sanders and Flathead counties.

Since 1979, he said farmers in those five counties have lost $940 million, or more than $30 million per year. Factoring in rising input costs, the region’s farmers earned $76 million less in 2008 than in 1969.

And to make matters worse for the local economy, Meter said the money is spent on farm supplies from outside the state.

“How long do you think you can keep that going?” he said. “Farmers have learned they can make more money renting out their land than farming it.”

Meter has studied food systems in 58 regions in 25 states. Through his many years of intensive agricultural research he has come to believe that as a society we need to re-think how a community functions, or else risking continued harm to our personal health, economy and general wellbeing.

Meter is the president of a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Crossroads Resource Center. According to the organization’s website, Crossroads “works with communities and their allies to foster democracy and local self-determination. We specialize in devising new tools communities can use to create a more sustainable future.”

An essential component of improving food systems, Meter said, is encouraging relationships between farmers and consumers. In that regard, he said Western Montana appears to be improving, particularly with its local foods movement.

Meter said direct sales from farmers to consumers increased 22 percent from 2002 to 2007 in Western Montana. The region has 489 farms selling $2 million worth of food directly to consumers. Direct sales, Meter said, account for 1.4 percent of the region’s food product sales, which is 3.5 times the national average.

And Meter could find further evidence of the area’s growing local food movement simply by looking around at the KM Theatre’s enthusiastic crowd. Pam Gerwe, of Purple Frog Gardens and Nourish the Flathead, said organizers were expecting around 50 people, but the final tally was at least triple that figure.

There are a number of community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations in Northwest Montana, as well as many other small and often organic agricultural operations. Farmer’s markets are major gathering spots in all of Flathead County’s towns.

Gerwe said it’s a natural Montana inclination to be self-sufficient, which is a foremost part of the local foods movement – it eliminates outside influences.

“That appeals here, that sense of fierce independence,” Gerwe said. “We can help ourselves.”

Meter said the five counties in his study are “really pioneering organics in Montana.” But Meter tempered the good news by saying the region still purchases only a small portion of its food from local farmers. Western Montana consumers spend $749 million on food each year, he said, and $680 million of that is spent on food from outside the area.

“That’s a lot of money leaving,” he said.

Meter described a number of local foods success stories across the country, including a profitable inner-city farm and greenhouse in Philadelphia. Gerwe also knows of success stories throughout Montana. She would like to see more.

“Part of what we’re trying to convey – the message we’re getting out there – is the potential for good-paying jobs either in production or processing or distribution,” Gerwe said. “There’s a lot of potential.”

For more information, visit www.nourishtheflathead.org or www.lakecountycdc.org.

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