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Homeland food security

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The old woman didn’t want me to print her name—she was afraid it might affect her upcoming court date with the Department of Revenue. “When the kids were home,” she said, “we spent about $5 a week on groceries. We raised the rest ourselves.”

She and her husband still raise goats, which they sell to buyers in places as far flung as Iowa, Nebraska and California. They also sell milk, cheese and the services of their stud goat. Last year their sales were $5,754, which used to qualify for the agriculture tax exemption. But the new tax law requires 20 acres of land to qualify. Their 14 acres are now classified as tract land.

“Our taxes went up about $1,000,” she said. “But the neighbors have a big fancy house, a big fancy garage and four horses. They have 20 acres of land, so they qualify for the agriculture exemption.”

Stories like this are behind the numbers recently gathered by the Missoula County Community Food Assessment (MCCFA), which found that agriculture in Missoula County is struggling.

The MCCFA also found that 71 percent of Montana ranchers surveyed wish they could market their beef locally, while a majority of consumers want the same. So why isn’t it happening?

These are just a few of many examples of local agriculture falling short, and the reasons are often far from simple. Now that the Missoula County Community Food Assessment has assembled information on the state of the local food scene, it is creating the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) to address the issues it has uncovered. The CFAC will involve a range of stakeholders in working to secure policies that support local food and farm systems.

According to UM professor Neva Hassenein, a co-founder of the Missoula County Community Food Assessment, the coalition has a logical place in local government. “We’ve got the Air Quality Advisory Council, a Planning Board, a Transportation Commission, but we don’t have anything for food and agriculture. It’s time we put a comprehensive approach to food and farming on the local government agenda.”

Through April 8, the MCCFA will accept applications for seats on the CFAC. If you are interested in applying, you can download the application at www.umt.edu/cfa/. They are looking for a diverse group, including—but not limited to—farmers, ranchers, anti-hunger advocates, low-income people, land-use planners, grocery store representatives, realtors, nutritionists and anyone who wants to help shape the local food system.

Ward 3’s Lou Ann Crowley helped usher CFAC to approval by both City Council and the county commissioners. “Local food is good for the economy,” Crowley says, “and it’s healthier to eat. If we can help create a way for farmers to make a better living, then it will encourage younger people to consider farming, and perpetuate this vital part of our culture.”

It’s no secret that Montana culture contains a healthy dose of ranching, which brings us back to the question of why it’s so hard to find Montana beef at the store when most ranchers and most consumers say they want it. Why is it that when you go to Albertsons, Safeway, Tidyman’s, Rosauers, Wal-Mart, Costco and the like, or any small mom-and-pop convenience store, the beef you find is just as likely from Florida as Montana?

Ray Johnson is a journeyman butcher and meat cutter who follows the meat scene with the attention that most people associate with baseball freaks or card counters. He can tell you which store is selling which cut of meat for which price. He knows which meatpackers have come and gone, where the remaining few are, and how many head they move. While his current employer, The Good Food Store, does carry local beef, Johnson understands the complex barriers to widespread competitive marketing of Montana beef here at home.

Volume, it turns out, is a major barrier. Most Montana calves are shipped to out-of-state feedlots and then to immense slaughterhouses. These facilities are equipped to process and market every single cow part, including the feet, guts, sinews and bones.

“Surgical equipment, marshmallows…you wouldn’t believe the stuff they make out of cow parts. And you wouldn’t believe how much of the offal (edible guts) gets shipped to Russia and Iran. But a place like Lolo Locker just doesn’t do enough volume to make it profitable to market parts.” In fact, rather than turning a profit on these parts, small outfits must pay money to dispose of them. Johnson also identifies a lack of skilled local meat cutters and a climate that’s adverse to the presence of feedlots as layers in the local beef paradox. Still, he thinks the local demand for local beef is high enough to support a meat packer large enough to market cow feet.

Maybe CFAC could use someone like Johnson on the board. And maybe a tax lawyer, too, to help the struggling goat farmers.

flash@missoulanews.com

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