Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development recently secured funding to contract a local food and farm study throughout seven counties in southwest Montana to collect data on the workings of the regional farm and food economy.
The study will be conducted by food system analyst Ken Meter and aims to unify stakeholders who will be involved in strengthening regional agricultural and food systems as well as identify strategic priorities for community economic development. The study will also assess the economic impact of community-based food systems throughout the study area, which includes Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Granite, Jefferson, Madison, Powell and Silver Bow Counties, said Headwaters RC&D economic development planner Katie Weaver.
The study will help to develop baseline data about not only what is being grown in the region but also what consumer habits are in terms of buying food and where that money comes from, she said.
“Many of our counties are highly reliant upon agricultural sector, so if we can find opportunities to further benefit that and capture some of those dollars locally and create some of those jobs locally, I think that is a great opportunity,” Weaver said. “We’ve got a lot of feedback through the comprehensive economic development strategy we’ve been doing, and now this is going to be kind of targeting it specifically at food and agriculture.”
Meter has conducted similar research in four different areas throughout the state, Weaver said, most recently in western Montana. Understanding what a food and farm system looks like can be an important tool in analyzing a local economy, Weaver explained, especially in rural areas where agriculture plays such a large role.
“Food processing used to be the largest employer in the state of Montana, and now its nearly non-existent,” Weaver said. “60 or 70 years ago, about 70 percent of all the food Montanans ate was grown in Montana. That is not the case anymore.”
Weaver added that it’s important to find opportunities within the agricultural sector to help generate local economic activity as well as throughout the state. While she emphasized that the study is in the preliminary stages and won’t have any tangible results until this fall, the proposed scope of work consists of compiling data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, food consumption estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and farm and production characteristics from the 2002 and 2007 Agricultural Censuses as well as additional data from other public databases to illuminate issues that are unique to the region.
Weaver said that her work at Headwaters RC&D recognizes the importance of agriculture in maintaining a strong local economy and she believes “there is great opportunity to continue to strengthen that and capture those dollars locally.”
“When we’re doing this work we’re really looking for what are those over arching regional collaborative opportunities, and we think agriculture is one of them,” she said.