Montana can help grow its economy by watching what it eats — and where the food residents eat was grown.

Ken Meter, an economist and president of Minneapolis-based Crossroads Research Center, told a crowd of about 75 people Tuesday that Montana’s 1.02 million eaters can aid the farm economy — and the state’s economy, too — by purchasing their food more locally, however that term is defined.

Meter’s 90-minute talk at the Billings Public Library was hosted by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, which also provided the crowd with locally grown and prepared hors d’oeuvres.

Over his career, Meter has worked with 107 regions in 36 states and one Canadian province, Manitoba.

Montanans import 90 percent of what they eat. The current food system, by which food is often shipped thousands of miles to get from farm to fork, “takes wealth out of our communities,” he said. “It is an uncomfortable reality.”

While he hasn’t studied the Billings farm and local foods landscape, he has analyzed farm data in Montana’s breadbasket, the Golden Triangle in northeastern Montana, where farmers have lost money in 22 of the last 31 years and, in an average year, spend $828 million to sell $765 million worth of crops. The average annual net loss per Golden Triangle farm is $11,700.

“That’s very generous of them,” Meter said. “I wonder how long they’ll want to keep doing that.”

When farmers there do make money, he said, it’s generally through two main sources — renting out their property or accepting federal commodity support payments.

If residents within the Golden Triangle spent $5 each week buying locally produced food, $32 million per year would be added to farm income — eliminating half the average annual loss.

Meter shared a few examples of groups including farmers and food banks increasing their capacity by focusing more sharply on the local market.

Eleven counties in north Alabama discovered their local food bank consortium was giving away cans of peas grown in China. The group decided it could grow its own peas, and since food banks have warehouses and coolers and are used to handling food safely, the food banks proved to be a logical choice for steering more locally grown food to the people who needed it most. “It is a food bank rethinking itself,” Meter said.

In South Carolina, Meter wrote a $9.8 million investment plan to build a food web, complete with food production nodes that feed big food hubs within the state. The state marketed the plan with an “Eat 5, Buy 5” program — eat five fruits and vegetables each day and spend $5 each week on locally produced food.

After Meter spoke, Treston Vermandel, a business development specialist with the Montana Department of Agriculture, talked about how important pulse crops — chickpeas, lentils and the like — are becoming as a rotational crop that helps ward off diseases. In the next five years, he said, about one million Montana acres will be converted from fallow to pulse crops.

He also said that All American Pharmaceutical is looking to build a pea-processing plant in Billings to use as an additive in its products.

Asked during a question-and-answer session following his presentation what tipping point might bring about a more locally produced focus, Meter said what’s most important is “leadership that is open and responsive and trusts one another.”

And, he said with a grin, “It’s important that we all eat a salad every day.”



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.