Fertile ground 

Agriculture speaks, Missoula listens

There’s a reason Missoula is known as the Garden City. There’s a long enough growing season, plenty of irrigable water and fertile soils, and impressive farmers’ markets with more than 100 vendors selling local produce, dairy products and meats. There’s even a proven base of consumers willing to pay for local, organic food.

But the fertile soils required to grow these foods are facing increasing risk as the city’s growth pushes development outward in a sprawling web,
primarily along the Bitterroot and Clark Fork River valleys.

These tendrils of development typically fall on top of the county’s most productive farmland, which, according to the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), is putting the county’s ability to grow food for its residents at increased risk.

“Farmland is an irreplaceable and finite resource,” says Paul Hubbard, CFAC’s land use program coordinator. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Foodies and farmers have long held this opinion, but it’s only recently that city and county planners started allowing agricultural value to affect their subdivision permitting process. In January, Missoula County Commissioners rejected a seemingly minor subdivision proposal in the Orchard Homes neighborhood, due in large part to the fact that the proposed “Sunshine Addition” would have spread 14 homes evenly across four acres, a density that Hubbard calls “Too small to farm and too big to mow.”

It was a landmark ruling. Although county commissioners have long been required by law to consider an array of perspectives when looking at subdivision permit applications—such as wetland mitigation, wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge potential, and the like—never before has a land’s agricultural value affected the outcome of the decision.

“This is a new issue, and like any other, some people will be more open to it than others,” says Roger Millar, vice chair of the Office of Planning and Grants. “My guess is that some people will look at farms as an amenity, like a golf course or a riverfront trail.”

“Developers want to talk to a variety of stakeholders before they get going, and agriculture is just becoming one of the voices they want to hear from,” says Hubbard. As a result, CFAC now receives development proposals prior to the county approval process; the feedback it offers potentially allows development firms to avoid last-minute rejections. Yet, of the seven proposals the group has commented on since January—two others are currently under consideration—CFAC has only recommended denying two.

“We’re not a no-growth group, and we really believe that developers are part of the solution,” says Hubbard. Since Missoula County is expected to grow by the tens of thousands in the next few decades, working with developers may be the only option.

However, very little of Missoula County is appropriate for agricultural development, Plum Creek’s current real estate ventures notwithstanding.

While the county covers 2,618 square miles, much of the land is mountainous, rocky, thin-soiled and ill suited for agriculture. Nearly half is publicly owned, and timber companies own half of the remainder. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 8 percent of county land contains soils suitable for agriculture, and these lie primarily along river corridors.

But these easily accessed, level, well drained and fertile valley bottoms have also been the most coveted by both yesterday’s homesteaders and today’s developers. As more people move in, the value of the lands increases, often to prices beyond what farmers can afford. As the average Missoula County farmer approaches 60 years old, according to the USDA, the ability to grow food close to town will likely diminish.

This is unfortunate, says CFAC, considering Montana’s rich agricultural heritage. One hundred years ago, valleys across the state were dotted with small farms, ranches and orchards, producing a wide variety of crops primarily for local consumption. Processing facilities were ubiquitous across the state. Ninety percent of the food consumed in Montana was grown here, and only 10 percent was imported. Today, with 90 percent of Montanan’s food coming from out of state, those numbers are exactly reversed.

The reason? Cheap fuels and easy transportation available during the 1900s opened up the opportunity for commodity farms to take advantage of a seemingly insatiable export market. Agricultural producers found the greatest profit by growing massive mono-crop fields and then selling the crops to higher-value markets elsewhere.

When combined with federal subsidies, this model was profitable for large-scale farmers and ranchers, as long as commodity and fuel prices remained stable and fuel costs low. But it left Montanans—and indeed Americans—with fewer local food options, forcing consumers into buying imported food and effectively squeezing out small-time and local producers.

The trend hit Montana particularly hard—some of the poorest counties in the United States are in Montana, many of them primarily agricultural areas.

The current shift in Missoula joins county planners with locavores in looking for ways to preserve local farms and feed people local food—essentially providing “food security” for the region.

Missoula, by nearly all accounts, is at the tip of the local food spear. “The average meal today travels 1,500 miles and is touched by 33 sets of hands,” says Hubbard. “This leaves us in a particularly vulnerable position.”

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