Creating a New Generation of Farmers

Sep 30, 2016

The Governor’s Local Food and Agriculture Summit will be held later this month in Bozeman.  It’s been nearly a decade since former Governor Brian Schweitzer convened the last Summit, a sort of pop-up food think tank, and in that time the state’s local food scene has changed. 

“Nationwide, this focus on local foods has grown dramatically,” said Annie Heuscher, director of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition

Consumers in Montana and across the United States increasingly want fresh, local food raised by farmers they know, Heuscher said. 

That’s all very well, but for the economics – certainly in the Northern Plains, where commodity ag has all but eclipsed small producers.  Consumers find local products expensive –if they can find them at all. 

Nine years ago, local food advocates identified a critical need:  infrastructure, basically getting food from dirt-caked Point A to kitchen-ready Point B at a price people are willing to pay, said Jan Tusick, director of the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center and a steering committee member of Grow Montana, the food policy coalition spearheading the summit.

That need gave rise to the state-funded Montana Food and Agricultural Development Network.  The network comprises centers in Joliet, Havre, Butte, and Ronan that Tusick says are catalysts for local food and ag startups.

“This is an economic opportunity for small growers,” Tusick said.  “I consider them a value chain for our ag enterprises, particularly the smaller farmers that are emerging across Montana.”

It’s those small producers, ones with 50 acres or fewer, that concern Annie Heuscher.   That group has dramatically changed the food landscape in the state by gamely rebuilding the local agricultural infrastructure virtually wiped out by what she calls the “get big-or-get-out” model. 

In 1950, 70 percent of the food eaten in Montana was grown and processed here, according to FoodCorps. Today, the state’s raw agricultural commodities ship to distant markets and that figure is 10 percent.

Despite this, Montana now has year round farmer’s markets, small growers’ cooperatives, food processing warehouses and nascent food hubs able to serve larger markets and institutions.

These innovations are often driven by young people – the next generation of producers, said Heuscher. 

“The average age of the farmer in Montana is 59 years old and a lot of land across the country and in Montana is going to transfer hands in the next 10, 20 years,” she said.  “Who is going to take that on and who is going to run successful businesses beyond that point is a big question.”

These young entrepreneurs need support to tackle the many challenges they face, Heuscher said:  access to land, capital, markets, mentors, networks, and production education.   

The Governor’s Local Food & Agriculture Summit will be held Oct. 28 and 29 at the Montana State University Campus in Bozeman.