The following topics are Grow Montana’s areas of focus for the 2020-2021 Legislative Session.
State Soil Health
Soil is one of our greatest resources. It is the foundation for agriculture, and it plays a critical role in protecting the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat. Through practices like composting and cover cropping, producers can build healthier soil and reap the benefits which include growing healthy food, building resilient farms and food systems, and increasing producer profitability and resiliency in the face of climate and market volatility
Common agricultural processes like tillage, monocropping, and the overapplication of fertilizers and synthetic inputs deteriorate soil organic matter over time. According to the USDA , Montana agricultural lands typically have lost around 70% of soil organic matter over generations of tillage and soil erosion. When fields are continuously tilled, for example, the soil loosens to smaller aggregates, making it susceptible to erosion and runoff. These common agricultural practices compromise soil’s productivity and cost producers more money in the long term.
With 60 million of its 90 million acres devoted to agriculture, Montana has the opportunity and obligation to protect and invest in its already hard-working soils.
- Adopt a Montana Healthy Soils Program to cost-share soil building practices and collect data on their benefits—including improving access to affordable and reliable soil health tests.
- Fund Montana’s conservation districts to provide additional on-farm and ranch technical assistance.
- Increase Montana processing capacity to support a more resilient and community based food system, able to make use of a diversified crop-livestock mix that can benefit healthy soils.
- Create a database of “Soil Champions” who exemplify soil stewardship. Through the MT Department of Agriculture and NRCS, develop a mentorship program to enable soil champions to assist other growers who want to experiment with or adopt soil health practices.
Farm to School
The Montana Farm to School program connects kids with local farmers and the healthy, fresh food they produce. The program expands food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools to prioritize Montana-grown food. Farm to school implementation differs by location but always includes one or more of the following core elements:
- Procurement: Local foods are purchased, promoted and served in the cafeteria or as a snack or taste-test;
- Education: Students participate in education activities related to agriculture, food, health or nutrition; and
- School gardens: Students engage in hands-on learning through gardening.
Research shows that students who participate in farm to school programs show an increased willingness to try new fruits and vegetables. Kids that have easy access to a variety of high-quality fruits and vegetables eat more of them. By combining increased access to local and fresh fruits and vegetables with farm to school educational activities, children demonstrate healthier nutrition behaviors.
Currently, Montana Farm to School is coordinated by Montana Team Nutrition, which works in close collaboration with the Office of Public Instruction School Nutrition Program. Coordination for this program currently depends upon uncertain federal grants, and Montana lacks a full-time “Farm to School Coordinator.”
- Funding mechanisms to offset school costs through appropriations, grant programs, or reimbursement structures.
- Funding for a state farm to school coordinator to be housed within the Office of Public Instruction.
Many Montanans do not have access to healthy, fresh foods and diet-related diseases are the top three causes of death in Montana. Montana Food Bank Network anticipates a 50% increase in food insecurity in the coming year and food banks across the state have experienced an increase in visits from people needing to access emergency food assistance. As food security will be an ongoing concern due to the Coronavirus pandemic, food access programs, such as Double SNAP Dollars, will be more important than ever to ensure all Montanans have access to healthy, affordable food.
By boosting the buying power of SNAP benefits, Double SNAP Dollars provides a dignified approach for more Montanans to access the quality of food they desire and that will help their bodies thrive.
The program focuses on local food so Montana farmers gain new customers and more food dollars stay in our local economy (but also because local food is fresh, healthy, and delicious!).
As of the beginning of the 2020 farmers market season, Double SNAP Dollars is being offered at 26 sites across Montana: 22 farmers markets, two CSAs, one farm stand, and one grocery store. Since the DSD program began in 2015, over 6,000 customers have been served, leading to increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. During that time, $440,000 has been spent through the DSD program on local foods, boosting Montana farmers’ income.
- Funding to support the statewide SNAP matching program, Double SNAP Dollars that incentivizes SNAP recipients to purchase Montana grown fruits and vegetables while increasing revenue for farmers.
Mid-Scale Food Processing
Not that long ago, Montanans ate much more locally grown and produced food. In 1950, Montana produced 70% of the food consumed in Montana. Currently, Montana producers only sell 7% of their products to Montana consumers. Rural, remote and tribal communities have limited access to healthy Montana-grown food due to the lack of high-volume produce, grain, and pulse processing, packing, and storage facilities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many tons of potatoes were wasted, primarily because their value was diminished on the futures market. Montana schools, food pantries, and grocers could not receive the food because they lacked access to processing (washing, packing) and storage facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated public demand for healthy, locally grown food in Montana, which strengthens Montana’s food security and farm resilience.
- More Montana meat processed in-state.
- Increased number of state-certified small, medium and mobile processing units.
- Asset mapping of meat processing in Montana.
- Increase capacity of storage, packing and processing facilities in rural Montana communities.