Missoula County is losing dirt, and needs to act quickly before it loses its quality of life, too.
That's the warning from the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, whose members offered some suggestions for how to rescue farmland from development at a news conference on Wednesday.
"If we build on every inch of available ground - good soil be damned - then we'll turn Missoula into ‘everyplace else,' " said farmer and coalition member Josh Slotnick. He argued the vitality of the valley's farmers markets and locally grown food was just as important as the scenery and good schools in attracting people to the area.
But housing and commercial development in much of the 1990s and 2000s covered over large swaths of the Missoula Valley's best farmland.
The result has been a lot of homesites that are "too small to farm and too big to mow," according to fellow coalition member Paul Hubbard. He and Neva Hassanein co-authored a study of Missoula County's available farmland, which found the area has lost 29,000 acres of working farm and ranch land in the past 25 years.
That leaves about 16,000 acres in the county still used for growing and harvesting crops. Those lands are also popular for development. While the building pressure has dropped with the economy in the past couple years, Hubbard said that was just a window of opportunity to get protections in place.
Those protections could include putting an "agriculture cornerstone area" designation in the city and county growth plans, which would encourage preserving existing farms and ranches. The group also recommended changing zoning and subdivision regulations to make developers offset lost agricultural land with improvements elsewhere.
On the encouragement side, the group called for funding incentives for keeping crop land available for food production, helping new farmers and ranchers acquire workable land and keeping local markets open to locally produced food.
Complete details of CFAC's proposals are available on the Internet at www.missoulacfac.org.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.