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Food and Ag Summit: Solutions to Healing An Ailing Food System

This two-part series on Spade & Spoon highlights the Montana Governor’s Food and Agriculture Summit held in March in Helena. The first article noted the issues associated with creating local food systems in Montana. This piece — the second — discusses solutions.

For Molly Anderson, research coordinator for the Farm and Food Policy Project, healing Montana’s food system begins by looking at the entire life cycle of food from ground to mouth, seed to sewer. To improve the health of our food system we must examine each organ of processing, packaging, advertising, cost… and the vascular transportation system that connects them.

For instance, food may expel fewer emissions when it travels greater distances than it would if grown in a greenhouse that is warmed with fossil fuels. Or food grown in Malawi might support the economy for that country while contributing only a fraction to greenhouse gases.

As we locate the strengths and weaknesses of the food system, Anderson believes that we will create regional food systems that equitably provide affordable food and support farmers and ranchers. This system is made feasible by investing in a regionally based infrastructure that includes building in-state processing plants while increasing funding and implementing policies that would support localization.

Around Montana, many organizations are already making the attempt.

In Ft. Belknap Montana, Ed Doney developed the Fort Belknap College Demonstration Farm. As the Senior Project Director and Extension Agent at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, Doney manages the six acres to educate students and community members about the land and their health. Families, elders and students grow nutritious food together while discussing cultural practices. For Doney, the communal experience improves the health and wellness of the tribe and the land.

Farther east, in Glendive, Montana, a more economically-driven project is underway. There, Bruce Smith, the 6’11’’ MSU extension agent who jokes, “food and I have never been a stranger,” is working to build a regional culinary school, a marketing cooperative and a farm-to-table restaurant. His idea is to re-create some of the imperative infrastructure needed for regional food systems to flourish by only sourcing these businesses with food grown within a 150-mile radius. As a part of this plan, Smith and his partners recently purchased the Western Trails Food company in order to expand the wholesale market of locally grown peas, lentils and flax.

But for Josh Slotnick, Farm Director of Missoula’s Garden City Harvest, the market is not the issue. West of the divide, land prices have incumbered Slotnick from expanding the acres he has under production. To support a local food system, he would like to see money taken from every transaction that occurs with the sale of land and put aside in a separate fund for farmers. The money would then be used to subsidize a farmer or rancher’s purchase of land for agriculture.

But when this idea was discussed in a later workshop, a Summit participant folded his arms across his broad chest and brusquely reminded us that, “This isn’t Russia people. This is America. America.” He nodded, satisfied that his point had been made.

And perhaps it had. While he alluded to a philosophical and political disagreement with such a policy, he clearly (and vociferously) illustrated that even 250 people gathered with the intention of improving the health of Montana’s food system have very different ideas on how to implement solutions.

After hearing from so many incredible speakers, Summit participants attempted to bridge those differences by mapping an ideal, holistic regional food system. Then they gathered in different groups to form recommendations for the Governor regarding what should be done to improve the health of Montana’s food system.

Many maps and discussions focused on the need for in-state processing plants, more direct sales from farms and ranches, and improved brokering and transportation networks. But as time dwindled down, the actual means to achieve such goals remained difficult to define. Quick and disparate responses were compiled into long lists that seemed as overwhelming as the problems they addressed. Some folks seemed fine with this creative chaos; others indicated that the workshops suffered from poor facilitation. But as one participant said, these are passionate people who are emotionally tied to specific issues of hunger, organics or economics. And while all of these elements, ideas and people are certainly a part of the larger system Anderson demands we attend to, we simply did not have the time or the facilitated discussion needed to really explore how to make the system healthier.

Fortunately the Summit’s organizers have undertaken an extensive review of the lists. They will continue to revise and research ideas in order to form concise recommendations that will provide a clearer prescription for the Governor to follow. These recommendations are expected in the near future (and will be posted here as soon as they are available).

Whatever the recommendations, they will certainly take political will, says Molly Anderson, and that can only come from direct citizen action.

Look for the Spade & Spoon column here ( every Tuesday. If you have article ideas for Spade & Spoon, email

About Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

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One comment

  1. Thank you for these great articles, Kisha. You really captured the complexity of these issues, as well as the sense of hope for the future that was cultivated at the summit. And, you’re right, now it is time to roll up our sleeves and move the ideas generated into further action. The good news is that people care.