Ag finding pulse here – Billings Outpost, April 16, 2015

April 20, 2015

Categories: Agriculture, Events, Food, News, Northern Plains Resource Council


“Our current food system takes wealth out of our communities,” says Ken Meter. “An uncomfortable reality but essential to talk about.”


Ken Meter checks out some greenhouse greens in Billings Heights on March 31.

The U.S. food system, he says, is based on long distance travel of food — either from farms and ranches into centralized processing facilities or back from those facilities to consumers, including those same farmers and ranchers; it is a food system engineered to supply, and prop up, the global export-import system.

Meter wants to propose an alternative, “a vision for local food economies” that builds health, wealth, connection and capacity.

Health, because food produced closer to home tends to be safer and more nutritious.

Wealth, because money rolls around in the local economy instead of being exported out.

Connection? Yes, between producer and consumer, but he also mentions connections “routinely ignored” — then talks about families and friends gathered to “eat around a table.”

Capacity? To do what? Not only to grow more of our own food closer to home — but also to actually cook at home. He cites “kitchens with no pots or pans” in dwellings whose occupants think “cooking” means “microwaving or going out to a restaurant.”

Farming at a loss

Advertised as a Harvard economist by the organizers of this event, the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council — a local affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council – Ken Meter indeed has taught at Harvard University (he tells me that he especially liked summer sessions there), but his primary institutional connection is with a nonprofit group called Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, Minn. (go to

He’s talking to a crowd of the converted — or mostly so — in the Community Room of the Billings Public Library. It’s a Tuesday evening, the last day of March, and the room is packed. He asks farmers and ranchers to raise their hands, and many hands go up. He asks gardeners to raise their hands, and more go up.

We’re all gazing at a map on a large screen called “Finding Food in Farm Country”; it shows 107 regions in 36 states of the U.S. — some are areas that Meter has studied; others he is familiar with on some level — and then we are watching a series of maps and charts go by.

What they show in example after example is losing enterprises. He focuses on the “Golden Triangle” area in north-central Montana; lots of grain and oil seed crops, as well as livestock, are raised there.

“You’d think this region would be doing well,” but he has 40 years of financial data on this area, 1969 to his most recent study in 2009, and says, “the average net loss per farm in this region is $11,700 a year.”

Production costs outpace income here, and in much (if not most) of the prime agricultural production areas in the United States.

 Farmers shop supermarkets, too

How do the people get by? There is significant farm-related income from a great variety of things: hunting and fishing access, bed and breakfast enterprises, onsite maintenance and mechanical work, and more. All that helps. But the big difference, Meter indicated, comes from the U.S. farm program.

“Federal subsidies,” he says, “basically keep farmers buying chemical inputs.” Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides – but how many of these, he asks, are produced in the Golden Triangle region of Montana?

Not many. He estimates that Golden Triangle farmers spend $350 million per year buying “inputs from outside this region.”

Obviously buying — or producing — local agriculture inputs would reduce losses.

But that’s only part of the picture. Ranchers and farmers send out raw products then – having been told not to waste their time with gardens and chicken eggs – spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying food in supermarkets that was processed outside the region. Despite recent movements to produce and process food in this state, and to market it person to person, or in farmers markets, or in local grocery stores, “almost 90 percent of Montana’s food still comes from somewhere else.”

This represents, Meter estimates, a $660 million “loss of potential wealth each year in the Golden Triangle.”

An example from Minnesota

An example from a 2001 study of food and farming in southeast Minnesota offers instructive, and parallel, data. Ken Meter authored this along with Jon Rosales of the Institute for Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability at the University of Minnesota. Here’s a summary using figures for this region from 1997:

  • The 8,436 farms in southeastern Minnesota sold $866 million worth of farm products but spent $947 million on input costs to raise this food.
  • The 303,256 residents of this region spent $506 million buying food, almost all of which comes from outside the state.
  • Farm families here spent $400 million per year purchasing farm inputs, and credit, from distant suppliers.
  • This adds up to approximately $800 million each year that flows out of this region as local people both grow and buy food.

“Local foods are the best path toward economic recovery,” says Meter, and that’s true in farm country and cities alike. “Building an economy around the need to eat is even more basic than installing wind generators.”

Slides in Meter’s power point presentation show successful enterprises from around the country that have decided to “feed our neighbors”; finding they “could not do it alone” they have formed business alliances — in some cases cooperatives – to accomplish this.

From a Montana co-op

Meter managed to acquire some local data from Good Earth Market, a cooperative in downtown Billings where the general public as well as members shop.

Eight years ago, Good Earth’s inventory was 7.3 percent local or regional foods (Meter points out that  “local” varies from place to place: it’s less about the distance food travels and more about “the connections we build, the quality of the community connection”).

From 2007 to 2015 Good Earth Market has tripled its percentage of local foods, to 22.1 percent. This brought cheers and applause.

Enter pulse crops

Ken Meter praised Montana Department of Agriculture policies geared toward revitalizing the state’s agricultural economy and said he’d take questions after Treston Vermandel spoke. Vermandel is the son of a ranching family in the Pryor Creek area and works for the Ag Department.

Vermandel described the Beginning Farm and Ranch Program – “low interest loans to acquire land” — and “Growth Through Agriculture” grants or low interest loans for “brewers, meat processors, people making socks from Montana wool — anything that adds value” to local products.

Then Vermandel veered into “specialty crops — fruits, vegetables, certain kinds of livestock, peas, lentils.” These last two items sent him into “pulse crops” — chickpeas and dried beans joined lentils and peas in the list, and he praised them all as “high protein” foods. (Pulse is a recent term, at least for me. I grew up — maybe you as well – calling them legumes.)

“There’s no negative to pulse crops,” Vermandel continued. “They don’t require as much water, they are grown in rotation, and they put nitrogen back into the ground.”

Montana and North Dakota (especially its western half, which is semi-arid like Montana) are the nation’s leading producers of pulse crops, but pulse acreage recently has reached a plateau in Dakota, at something less than 300,000 acres, while Montana farmers are planting pulse crops at an exponential rate.

“2016 is the Year of the Pulse,” Vermandel announced, smiling, and cited Montana acreage statistics: In 1988 the state had 15,000 to 20,000 acres in pulse crops. By 2010 this had risen to 50,000. Then came the explosion. This year, Vermandel said, Montana is expected to plant 700,000 acres of peas, lentils, chickpeas, beans.

Enter ‘Lentil Underground’

A big reason for this is the growing acreage in Montana devoted to low-petrochemical or completely organic (non-petrochemical) approaches. Peas, lentils and other pulse crops — in concert with various bacteria — are called “nitrogen fixers”; stated over-simply, they create their own nitrogen fertilizer, negating (or at least reducing) the need to use high-priced petrochemicals. And they enrich the soil. That’s why they’re so great in rotation with crops that demand high quantities of nitrogen, such as wheat or corn.

Corn needs too much water to grow widely in Montana – except in stream valleys – but dryland wheat and other grains do well here, and organic farmers like  U.S. Sen. Jon Tester have shown that grains do very well in rotation with lentils, peas and other pulse crops.

Having associated with Montana organic grain farmers for decades, largely through AERO — Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization — I am glad to see this information about lowering “input” costs while improving the soil is moving into mainstream consciousness.

And finally there is a book out about the pioneering Montana farmers who kick started this movement: “The Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America.” It’s by Liz Carlisle (who grew up in Missoula) and it features the perspectives and experience of many people but focuses on organic farmer and entrepreneur David Oien — from Conrad, in the Golden Triangle — and on his business called Timeless Seeds.

After questions subsided — many of them were about pulse crops – I wandered among people munching tasty, homemade snacks and made my way to Ken Meter then to Treston Vermandel.

“Have you heard of ‘The Lentil Underground’?” I asked. Each replied, “Yes! But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Me either,” I said, “but I know the author, and some of the main characters, and I just ordered the book.”


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