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041413 local foods

Montanans love local. The many farmers markets in the state help people choose local foods. Montana ranks No. 6 in the country in the 2013 Locavore Index, the second annual report released by a Vermont local food advocacy group called Strolling of the Heifers.

Missoula loves local.

We drink coffee made from locally roasted beans.

We wear (406) sweatshirts printed right here.

We eat mixed greens and garlic cheese from our favorite vendors at the local farmers markets.

So it might be no surprise that Montana ranks No. 6 in the country in the 2013 Locavore Index, the second annual report released by a Vermont local food advocacy group called Strolling of the Heifers. Vermont again nabbed the top spot in the country, and Montana ranked in the top 10 for the second year in a row.

“In some sense, and I hate to say this as a farmer, it doesn’t have anything to do with food,” said Missoula’s Josh Slotnick, with Clark Fork Organics. “It has everything to do with us wanting to be part of where we live, and engaging with our food system is a way to engage in the place, and Missoula is filled with people who love this place.”

The index ranks states based on their population versus the number of farmers markets, CSAs (or community supported agriculture shares) and “food hubs,” such as farm-to-school programs. Index coordinator Martin Langeveld said food hubs are a new factor this year, and the measures will continue to evolve.

“Right now, reliable state-by-state data about local food consumption is pretty scarce,” he said.

In 2012, Montana was No. 3 on the list, and Langeveld said CSA data is probably the factor that dropped the Big Sky State’s number this year. In 2012, the index used CSA data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census; this year, the group wanted to use a more current measure, so it used numbers from a site called Local Harvest.

“In some ways, the USDA data was much more complete and listed a lot more CSAs,” Langeveld said. “But we just felt that we needed to use something that was more recent.”

Next year, 2012 data from the USDA will be available, and the index will rely on it.

***

The locavore movement is fresh, and the word itself came into being in 2005 and was designated the 2007 Word of the Year by the Oxford American Dictionary, according to Strolling of the Heifers: “Locavorism advocates a preference for local food for a variety of reasons.”

Among those reasons:

• Local food travels shorter distances.

• Less food is wasted.

• Local food is fresher and healthier.

• It “encourages the diversification of local agriculture, which reduces the reliance on monoculture.”

• It reduces reliance on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

• Local food builds local economies, and;

• Local food creates a more vibrant community by connecting farmers to consumers.

The top five states in order of locavore rank are Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Iowa; the bottom five states are Texas, last on the list, Florida, Louisiana, Arizona and Nevada.

***

Slotnick started farming in Missoula in 1992, and back then local food wasn’t part of the everyday lexicon. Unlike today, the farmer would get a certain reaction when he talked about his work to people in the community.

“They would look at me quizzically,” Slotnick said. “Now, phrases like local food are a part of the national conversation, and this movement is everywhere. It’s not marginal. It’s a part of the mainstream, and I think Missoula has been a bit ahead of the curve.”

Slotnick, also co-founder of Garden City Harvest and the PEAS farm, said he appreciates the Locavore Index, but he also sees ways to fine-tune the measures. For instance, farmers markets range from the flea market variety, with mostly crafts, to markets with 100 percent locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy and grains; he said they could be weighted based on where they sit on that spectrum.

“Not all farmers markets are created equally in terms of how much they represent a local food system,” Slotnick said.

Measures also could include community gardens and food advocacy groups. In Missoula, for instance, Garden City Harvest runs neighborhood plots and aims to grow local, sustainable produce with a focus on helping Missoulians who live in poverty.

Missoula also may spend public money to protect local food. For the first time, a vegetable garden, the River Road Community Garden of Garden City Harvest, has been recommended as a recipient of open space bond funds.

Slotnick praised the index as a way to pat communities on the back for supporting local food and encourage others to do better. At the same time, he said, when it comes to food, policy concerns are pressing, such as saving quality agricultural soil.

“We need to figure out collectively how to save this precious resource, because in western Montana, there’s not a lot of it,” Slotnick said. “And if we don’t protect it, it will be gone.”

***

To protect local agriculture, the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board has recommended a package of policy tools to the Board of County Commissioners.

Ideas include:

• Revising subdivision regulations to assess impacts to agriculture and “options for mitigation,”

• Adopting a “right to farm” ordinance, and

• Creating and continuing assistance to economic development projects and programs related to agriculture.

Neva Hassanein, a local food advocate and researcher, said a hearing on subdivision regulations was supposed to be scheduled in February, but then the Montana Legislature took up – and eventually passed – Senate Bill 147.

Since the 1970s, proposed subdivisions have had to be reviewed for criteria including impacts to public health and safety, taxation and agriculture, Hassanein said. She said the bill deletes agriculture from the criteria and replaces it with impacts on “adjacent agricultural operations.”

“It completely disregards the fact that agriculture is our No. 1 industry in Montana, that it’s a key part of our heritage, and agricultural soils are the source of all of our food,” Hassanein said.

She said she’s hopeful Gov. Steve Bullock will veto the bill.

Hassanein embarked on her work as a local food advocate and co-founder of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition because she saw that a local food economy isn’t possible without farmland. She’d like Montana to be ranked No. 1 in the Locavore Index, but preserving local food means saving its source.

“We can grow these markets for local food, but if we don’t have farmland and farmers, then you know, we’re missing the bedrock,” Hassanein said.

***

For the Locavore Index to be a more precise measure, it should consider many more factors, but data on local agriculture is either spotty or not being kept at all, said Nancy Matheson, special projects coordinator in the Agricultural Marketing and Business Development Bureau of the Montana Department of Agriculture.

Matheson noticed Montana fell from its No. 3 place last year to No. 6 this year, but she said the state has been a leader nationally when it comes to local food. She doesn’t believe the efforts are declining and said a couple of bills in the Legislature could expand local food production, including a cottage food law, House Bill 630.

“A lot of people think of cottage food laws as simply supporting sort of hobbyists, but the Department of Agriculture sees it much more as incubation, food business incubation,” Matheson said. “You can play with your recipes and test them in the market before making that big investment.”

The bill also would require the main state agencies that regulate food to do a study and recommend changes in the state’s food regulations, which Matheson said have been described as “piecemeal.” It also would review the changes needed as a result of the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act, “the first update in food regulation since 1938.”

Also in play is House Bill 420, which would continue to fund the state Food and Ag Development Center Network of economic development organizations that work with food and value-added agricultural businesses, Matheson said.

While much work remains to create food security in the community, Montana didn’t get its good locavore rankings by resting on its laurels, according to local advocates.

The University of Montana, for instance, is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Farm-to-College program, Hassanein said. The program puts 20 percent of its annual budget into Montana-grown and processed food.

“I’m really proud of what Montana has done. ... A state institution is helping to drive this local food economy, and that’s just one example,” Hassanein said.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.