Creating Community through Agriculture
By Natedao Taotawin
This week a group of the UM Mansfield Professional Fellows visited many farms, orchards, and processing facilities. People asked me, " Why do you need to pay attention to farming and farmers in the situation that the world is increasingly developed toward industrialization and globalization?"
We all know that food has become a critical concern nowadays because the world of food production and consumption has dramatically changed in the last few decades. This change has brought about the scares of food contaminations and health problems. Despite the concern on food, we might not know where foods come from and how it is produced.
To know where foods come from and how it is produced, we need to know more about farmers’ livelihoods and farming practices. Moreover, we need to know potentials and constraints faced by local growers in the contemporary situation. Similar to Thai growers, local growers in the U.S. confront some difficulties such as a lack of sufficient land, high production cost, climate change, low and fluctuating price of agricultural products, etc. However, in my point of view, local growers in the U.S. might have higher potential in regard to capability to access capital, technology, markets, and collective bargaining. This higher potential stems from the fact that there are many factors involved in helping local growers to create their competitiveness in the markets. Among those factors, I consider cooperatives play a key role in helping local growers in Missoula in many ways. I was impressed when I visited the Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC). This cooperative aims to provide local growers information about products, address problems in relation to production and marketing, and improve quality of agricultural products to meet industry standards of regulation and quality. Moreover, the cooperative encourages members to work together to assure quality control. WMGC has a diverse group of farmer members that allow the cooperative to supply customers with certified organic, chemical free and also conventionally grown products. The cooperative has a variety of fruits. vegetables and poultry all year round. When I asked Dave, manager of the cooperative, why consumers are interested in buying agricultural products from WMGC, he replied, "There is a trend to consume local foods. We identify ourselves as the "local" growers. We consider "local" growers as the first character of co-operative." WMGC sets up a price standard that is satisfactory to local growers who therefore decide to sell their homegrown products to the cooperative. The Montana Sustainable Growers’ Union is a union of the small farmers who produce agricultural products to serve WMGC. The growers’ union pursues the idea of a local economy which rests upon two principles: neighborhood and subsistence.
I asked why the consumers need to buy local products instead of other labels. The answer is very interesting. "Homegrown is dependent on our relationship with our community. Foods are here perceived as the connection between growers and place as well as local culture. Eating locally provides not only fresh, seasonal food, but also opportunities to engage in the whole culture of agriculture."
Considering economy, buying local products is the best way to support homegrown farmers, thereby contributing to the economic health of Missoula. Moreover, buying homegrown saves the energy required to ship food across the globe and puts the energy where it should be. Furthermore, considering quality, homegrown food is fresher than foods sold in supermarkets. We might not acknowledge the power of consumers. But once we choose to buy locally grown food, we also help reshape the world of food production.
The next day I visited the Lifeline Creamery Processing Facility. This is the place where a variety of milk products and poultry are processed, packed, distributed and sold. It is a fascinating local enterprise. Milk produced by farms operated by small scale farmers are being processed to be sterilized milk, cheese, and organic cheese, thereby creating added value to milk products. The Lifeline Creamery produces high quality milk and milk products. Rony Harly, the manager of the Creamery processing facility, told me that the small farmers here face some difficulties in regard to insufficient land for production, the high price of land, climate change, and market pressure. "The environment is not stable. Climate change affects farmers in Montana because the weather has dramatically changed. Sometimes it is cold in spring, but suddenly there is a strong wind. Animals have to adjust themselves to get ability to respond to changing weather."
The marketing strategy for selling local milk products here is the concern with quality, sustainability, organic and chemical free feed, and overall health. Harly said the Lifeline Creamery does not try to compete with industrial milk producers, as local consumers in Montana acknowledge the good quality of the local milk products is.
I also had a great chance to learn from the Garden City Harvest Programs. Jean Zosel, Executive Director of the program, told me that there are many programs which are operated through the support of the Garden City Harvest Program. The first program is the "Community Education Program" which focuses mainly on providing education for school students and university students. It aims to link youth and adults to their food and the place it is grown. The second program is the "Community Gardens Program." Its aim is to provide a small plot of land, production inputs, and equipment for Missoulians to learn how to grow food. The third program is the "Neighborhood Farms" where four farms in a nearby city are created. The program aims to produce foods for local income families through the CSA. The consumer pays in advance to support the production of vegetables which the farmer will produce throughout the growing season, and the consumers will pick up vegetables each week. The final project is the "Youth Development Program." It encourages university students and at-risk youth to do farming and be employed at the PEAS FArm. The foods produced from the program mostly sell to low-income families and the food bank. Moreover, the program is expected to provide a platform for youths to work together and develop friendships through working on the land. I talked to many youths who are transplanting trees to land. They said they enjoy farming and learning how to make agriculture become more environmentally sustainable. Last but not least, they learn the joy of doing something good for others. In my view, it is the hope for future.
What I learned from visiting many farms in Missoula is not only how the farmers engage in food production, but also how agriculture can be used to create communities and to solve economical, social, and environmental problems. Through learning about agriculture, we can find an alternative path toward sustainable development.