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Missoula County has enough agricultural land to feed all its citizens.

If we go vegetarian.

But if county residents maintain their current diets, which are rich in beef and chicken, we’d need nearly 50 percent more agricultural land than is currently available.

“Do we have enough resources to feed ourselves?” asked Elon Gilbert, an agricultural economist and author of a study called “A Place to Grow: An Informed Discussion on Agriculture and Land Use in Western Montana.” “Yes. But it depends on what we eat.”

The study, released Friday by the Missoula Organization of Realtors and the Missoula Building Industry Association, is the latest round in an ongoing community discussion about local food, farming, open space and development in Missoula County.

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The issue came front and center earlier this year in a report from Paul Hubbard and Neva Hassanein called “Losing Ground: The Future of Farms and Food in Missoula County.”

The report documented the decrease in the amount of county farmland, particularly since 1986.

“What’s important is that we lost three football fields worth of farmland every day from 1986 to 2009,” said Hubbard, a member of Community Food and Agricultural Coalition. “What’s key from their report is that we’re in agreement that the loss of working farmland is a big issue, and that we need a clear and predictable process for moving forward.”

In fact, Hubbard was particularly impressed by Gilbert’s part of the report.

“We’ve worked very close with Elon and I think that bodes well for the whole community as this discussion continues.”

Obviously, neither Hubbard nor Gilbert believes Missoula County will ever need to produce enough food to feed its residents.

But that reality does nothing to lessen the importance of decisions made about land that has historically been used for farming. Many of those farmers now see their economic futures tied to development rather than agriculture. Others, however, see an urgency to preserve those lands, not just for farming, but for open space, wildlife and recreation.

 

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Gilbert noted that Missoula County is unlikely to re-emerge as an agricultural force. First, the economics of farming aren’t particular attractive. In fact, the county has grown more prosperous as its moved away from its agricultural roots.

“The most significant challenge for agriculture in our area is the large and growing gap between land values and agricultural potential,” Gilbert noted. “Development in Missoula County has inflated the price of land beyond its agricultural worth. ... The core question is the value that the community places on open space and its ability to find ways to preserve it.”

Missoula Attorney Bill VanCanagan wrote the legal end of Friday’s report, and he argued that subdivision review is not an “appropriate tool for preserving agricultural lands and preventing their conversion to non-agricultural uses.”

That assertion drew a few quibbles from the audience, which included Deputy Missoula County Attorney James McCubbin, who deals with land use issues.

Despite the quibbles, the meeting seemed to produce at least a verbal commitment to continue the discussion about what should be done with the county’s diminishing farmland.

“We don’t have to look at this as either business as usual or as an inevitable decline,” said Roger Millar, the former director of the city-county Office of Planning and Grants. “We can change and grow, and we can be more sustainable.”

In other words, it’s not all farms or all development.

“I agree,” Gilbert said as Millar sat down.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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