Dozens of community leaders and policymakers put on their walking shoes and toured Missoula Valley farms Sunday to learn firsthand about the challenges of agriculture in the 21st-century and to hear concerns about sustaining a strong local food system.
Organized by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, the tour showcased four farms on the fringe of Missoula and sparked a day of intense discussion about how to safeguard the valley's agricultural lands.
Rising oil prices, food safety, competition for food among affluent countries, an increasing population and climate change all raise serious questions about the sustainability of the global food system, said Neva Hassanein, an organizer of the tour and an environmental studies professor at the University of Montana.
In Missoula, those issues are compounded by urban development.
Agricultural land n land that has the necessary soil composition for growing food n occupies only 8 percent of the total area of Missoula County, Hassanein said.
Flat ground that drains well and has reliable water sources is the best place to grow food n but it's also the kind of place preferred by developers, she said.
When subdivisions and new buildings are reviewed, topics such as sewer, water, school access and other infrastructure necessities are discussed, Hassanein said. But until the coalition's recent participation in the review process, no one had been discussing the loss of agricultural land and where the community's food would come from.
"For years, every time plans of subdivision are reviewed, we write off use of that land as farmland," Hassanein said.
That loss of land is incremental, one development at a time, she said. But with each passing year, it adds up to thousands of acres.
The effect? No one really knows, Hassanein said, but the concern is that Missoula will at some time face a tipping point.
A crowd of about 65 people participated in the tour, including Missoula City Council members, city planners, Missoula County commissioners and representatives from local land-use planning firm WGM, the Catalyst cafe and the Good Food Store.
Among the many questions they pondered: What will it take to protect the remaining agricultural land in Missoula County? How can we be creative about protecting agricultural land and providing predictable patterns for future development? How can we help beginning farmers get started? To what extent can we feed residents with local food now and in the future?
The daylong tour made stops at Clark Fork Organics on Tower Street, the Moua and Khang Farm on South Seventh Street West, the Mastel Farm on Deschamps Lane, and the Cusker Ranch along the Clark Fork River in Grass Valley.
For more information, read Monday's Missoulian or go to Missoulian.com.