Although agriculture is Montana’s largest industry, the facts about our food system illustrate a frightening disconnect between what we produce, and what we eat. The vast majority of the crops raised on Montana’s sixty million acres of farm and rangeland are exported as bulk raw commodities, such as wheat, barley, and feeder calves. Montana processes less than nine percent of our agricultural products before they leave the state, and as a result, over eighty six percent of the food we eat must be imported. In this system farmers have lost a significant measure of control over their products and consumers have largely lost access to fresh local food.
Conversely, a sustainable Montana-based food system is a familiar vision. Seventy years ago food processing was Montana’s number one employer, and seventy percent of our food was produced in state. Local markets help to avoid the global fluctuations that are beyond the control of communities and states. Montana’s local food system must balance the benefits of serving our citizens with healthy local farm products as well as the benefits of some export markets.
This program encompasses several projects that expand sustainable agriculture in Montana, and focus on redeveloping local food systems to support both our rural and urban communities. Many AERO members are farmers and ranchers who employ the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture by sharing their experiences and findings on the community level in order to protect natural resources and create profitable agricultural businesses.
How does AERO help to redevelop community-based food systems in Montana?
- Food Policy: AERO is a founding member of the statewide food policy coalition Grow Montana, which has conducted foundational food systems research, developed Montana’s institutional market for local foods, and helped support food and agricultural entrepreneurs around the state.
- Montana FoodCorps: AERO is supporting the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) Montana FoodCorps, which is a team of full time, trained volunteers working on local food projects in nine rural Montana communities. AERO’s role is to help network the FoodCorps team and provide them with the resources needed to continue their leadership in Montana’s local food movement. Visit the Montana FoodCorps blog to learn more about their exciting work.
- Farmers Markets: AERO has developed a manual on how to start a new farmers market in Montana, and has helped expand the ability to utilize SNAP benefits at farmers markets across the state. We also maintain a list of Montana farmers markets and community supported agriculture projects in the state.
- Clarifying Food Safety Regulations: AERO has helped Montana’s state agencies identify and address some of the challenges farmers and ranchers face in navigating laws and regulations that pertain to marketing products directly to consumers.
- Expanding Opportunities for Poultry Producers: AERO has been a key partner with the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative in the development of a mobile poultry processing unit. AERO also helped develop and publish the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative’s Mobile Processing Unit Training & Use Manual, and supports training and outreach for the MPU.
- Community Gardens: In partnership with WEEL (Working for Economic Equality and Liberation), AERO founded the Growing Community Project, which is building community gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood in Helena, Montana.
Building a Community Garden in Montana by Katherine Grear Hutchison is a manual containing tools, examples, resources and strategies for developing, funding and leading a community garden project in Montana. The manual is available to download as a PDF or call us at (406) 443-7272 to order a hard copy notebook. The cost for the notebook is $15, $12 for AERO members.
- Specialty Crops Conference: The USDA has defined certain high-value crops as specialty crops, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. To learn more about how the USDA defines specialty crops, click here. The goal of this conference was to help develop Montana’s specialty crop production and markets by convening a range of stakeholders to share their best practices. To learn more about the conference, click here.
- Farm Tours: Every year AERO holds farm tours across the state, typically in the summer and autumn. The aim of these tours is three-fold: to connect farmers and community members, to highlight innovative work on farms and ranches across the state, and provide field-based education to farmers and ranchers. Click here to learn about upcoming and past farm tours.
- Statewide Food Mapping: AERO is a key partner with the Montana Department of Agriculture in a statewide food mapping project that will assess the progress made in the development of Montana’s local and regional food value chain infrastructure over the past 20 years. It will identify where the assets and gaps are, and where development efforts need to focus next. Check back for more information on how to view the maps.