Located in the north-central part of the state, Montana’s Golden Triangle is a generous and expansive landscape sown with wheat, barley, and other grains raised, for the most part, by large-scale farm operations. Straight off a vast family-owned wheat ranch near Great Falls, two-time Iraq war vet Mike N. is now studying farming in a nationally unique curriculum offered by Montana State University called Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems (SFBS). Fellow student Maggie W., a sixth generation Montanan, grew up raising farm animals in connection to 4-H and Future Farmers of America leading to her passionate interest in agriculture and nutrition. Both students cherish their involvement with the new SFBS program.
Distinguishing SFBS’s character is its interdisciplinary educational approach that benefits from four departments (Health and Human Development, Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, and Animal and Range Sciences) within two university colleges (Education, Health and Human Development and Agriculture). Establishment of the curriculum has been largely aided by the USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant program. An outdoor classroom at Towne’s Harvest Garden provides an authentic experience for the students’ first required practicum in addition to a prime setting for multifaceted projects and research. The garden is largely supported by the sale of fresh produce through a commercial arm, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Mike and Maggie are two of approximately 60 students who’ve chosen SFBS as their major. The academic endeavor is only two years old, and the tally of registered students has far exceeded administrative expectations. Particularly notable is the strong showing of young Montanans reared in conventional agricultural settings. Mike and Maggie, like others in the program, are actively seeking new approaches to revitalize their family farms and communities and enhance the long-term success of these private enterprises. With hopeful support from their parents, each has chosen to focus on sustainable food production as it relates to professional agriculture. Mike explains, “I want to return to my family’s ranch to raise fresh market produce and to help my father increase yields through a greater diversity of crops and growing practices.”
Just 50 years ago the state of Montana was regarded as “food self-sufficient,” meaning our subsistence was derived from in-state farm/ranch raised and processed food. Today, by contrast, our state imports almost 80% of the food that ends up on family dining tables. Here’s a notable addendum to the Montana food system history: our pre-1950 food producing infrastructure not only fed Montana citizens but also significantly supplied processed foods to neighboring states. Food processing alone employed nearly 3,000 people in the Fifties and economically provided for Montana citizens to acquire food from Montana sources. In addition, Montana’s local food supply chain ensured farmers and ranchers a fair share for their products. In the latter half of the 20th century, Montana’s food system experienced dramatic shifts from a production and processing-oriented food system to a commodity-based food system. In the 1985 census, for instance, employment in Montana’s food processing sector was non-existent. (Montana Food System Council website: www.montanafood.org/projects)
Over the last 20 years or so, a broad coalition of people and organizations concerned about the sustainability of Montana’s food system formed Grow Montana to promote community economic development policies that support sustainable Montana-owned food production, processing, and distribution. Our state is considered to be a national leader in implementation of farm-to-school, farm-to-cafeteria, and food security programs. Three years ago Governor Brian Schweitzer instituted the first statewide “Food and Ag Summit” to bring food system stakeholders under one roof to discuss topics related to our state’s food system. Over 300 people attended!
Viewed within the framework of the larger picture of Montana’ s food system shift and established by a land grant college (university) whose mission it is to “ provide…a diverse learning environment in which the entire university community is fully engaged in supporting student success,” SFBS’ s interdisciplinary grassroots program clearly embodies the school’s primary mission. Though MSU encourages interdisciplinary work for its value to overall academics, the university often struggles to financially support this learning approach. Collaboration is expensive.
MSU has a wonderful opportunity in SFBS to address the land grant mission by strengthening Montana’ s food system and contributing to the workforce of food system professionals. The Treasure State’ s pot of gold is rejuvenated by young people like Mike and Maggie who wish to return to their communities, imbued with a dynamic education to energize agricultural practices. A thriving food system requires renewal, and MSU’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program offers a fresh academic alternative. -BM
(All photos by Alison Harmon.)
Cindy Owings is the Executive Director for Red Feather Development Group. She is home in McAllister, Montana, and runs the popular lifestyle blog, petuniagirl.