HELENA - Food banks, state agencies and other groups that work with the hungry need to show farmers there's a market for other crops besides wheat, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said during a conference titled "Food, Farms and People."
He said surrounding states and Canadian provinces grow more produce than Montana and "what jump starts farmers to produce crops is profit motive."
"We need them to do frankly what they've done in Alberta," Schweitzer said at Wednesday's conference. "If you've been to Lethbridge or up to Brooks, you'll see that they're already growing vegetables from A to Z and they're further north. If you go to the Red River Valley in North Dakota, same; if you go to Manitoba, same; if you go to eastern Washington, same; if you go to southern Idaho, same. And in Montana we grow wheat."
Schweitzer urged the Montana State University extension program to expand its research to other crops that could be grown in the state.
Speakers at the conference also said farmers and ranchers and groups that help the hungry could form an alliance that would benefit all.
"It would be good for our state, the state that we love so much, if more of the food produced in Montana were processed and consumed in Montana," said Hank Hudson of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
He predicted that within a couple of years, $100 million in food stamps will be issued each year in the state.
"It would be a wonderful thing if that was used to purchase food produced in Montana," Hudson said.
About 15 percent of the money spent on food in Montana is spent on food produced in the state. Doubling that to 30 percent would bring another $450 million to the state's economy, Hudson said.
Tom Elliott, a Livingston rancher, suggested that both producers and consumers would benefit if agriculture returned to small, local operations rather than being dominated by large, corporate farms.
Jon Stoner of Havre, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, questioned how local farms could compete, given corporate farmers' ability to keep prices low. Stoner called the idea of producing other crops "interesting" but said the next step is figuring out how to make it profitable