Some people think its odd that I want to visit farms when I travel as it is not a typical tourism destination. In Portland Skinny Backpacker asked me why I was so interested in agriculture.
I haven’t always been this way. I grew up in an apple valley and had no interest in farming. It has been a slow road that began in university. I love food so I learned how to cook. When you cook from scratch you begin to think about the ingredients: cost and where they come from. I started reading more about food sourcing and after watching the Future of Food I decided to buy organic. But this meant eating less meat as I needed to save money for my career break.
At that time I was eating organic because I was worried about my health. It seemed to make sense that if we poured chemicals into the ground and tried to grow a potato in that ground eventually we’d be eating those chemicals.
But in Latin America I started to see where the food was actually coming from, that there were workers on banana plantations who breathed in the fumes of pesticides from spraying the plants. So even if bananas weren’t one of the ‘dirty dozen‘ those pesticides still had an impact.
More than ever I am committed to choosing organic not only because it’s good for me but it’s also good for the people who supply my food.
Coming to Montana I knew it was cattle country and wondered how things were developing here. Did anyone think about these things? I asked to visit some farms and was surprised to hear people are getting organized and there is a Western Sustainability Exchange. The association is all about protecting the future of the region. It means making farming and ranching profitable, while protecting the land and providing good food.
Two hours flew by at the offices of the Western Sustainability Exchange. We didn’t agree on how everything should be done. I think we should eat less meat and many people in Montana would take issue with that. But we both have the same end goal and for that I’m willing to listen and learn.
Some aspects are more difficult to organize, there are small simple things like a weekly farmers market in Livingston that acts as a community social event complete with music. Farmers meet each other and the public. Restaurants like Cafe Decamp are coming on board and choosing a menu that changes with local availability.
The association has also had a lot of success teaching ranchers more sustainable practices, which fortunately reduces operating costs. They also realized that some ranchers thought more was better but weren’t making greater profits. So they needed to educate them on profit margins and understanding where they maxed out on profit and efforts.
That was easy
One of the most difficult issues is the actual meat processing which can be costly. It’s easier for a rancher to sell the animal than to process it. There is no demand for offal and the plant charges an exorbitant fee to remove it out of state. Supplying a finished product just doesn’t make sense to most ranchers. It’s too risky.
That could change.
The association has brought together groups of people from ranching to distribution to rethink ranching, how can they make it more profitable so people can buy local? There is no answer yet but they are working on a number of ideas.
The other issue is that people just want cheap food. While we say we want to protect the environment and support our community we are not willing to pay our local food suppliers more. This is not limited to Montana, this is universal.
And then we are surprised that there is pink slime or ammonia in our hamburgers. We want a dollar menu but don’t want to see how that animal was raised so it would be so inexpensive.
>At times it can be frustrating and I don’t know what the answer is but I am going to keep visiting farms and meeting people trying to create change.