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Agriculture Department mapping Montana’s food system

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A new interactive online map created by Montana’s Department of Agriculture paints a picture of the potential for improving Montana’s food system infrastructure and providing new economic opportunities for agriculture and locally-grown food products.

Based on the outcome of a 2011 economic analysis commissioned by Lake County’s Community Development Corporation, Nancy Matheson and her team undertook the massive chore of coding and labeling each establishment that is part of Montana’s system of food commerce including producers, processors, distributors, retailers and more.

Matheson, who is the special projects coordinator for the Agriculture Marketing and Business Development Bureau of the Montana Department of Agriculture, said the map will always be a work in progress as data is updated, but for now, the U.S. 93 corridor along the five counties in Western Montana is the most comprehensive.

“We used information from the Department of Health’s food license database to code each establishment,” Matheson said. “We were surprised to realize that 25 percent of Montana’s licensed food businesses are in the five counties that make up the U.S. 93 corridor. So that’s why the Western Montana portion of the map is the most complete.”

She said that one segment of the system that isn’t included is some farming operations. “They are the only part of the food system that aren’t licensed, so that’s been harder to find,” she said. “For example, if we have a farmer who is growing wheat and barley and only shipping it to Taiwan, they may not be on the map.”

Matheson said the purpose of the coded map is mainly for analytical purposes. “People can analyze the state of our food manufacturing and distributor infrastructure and discover ideas of where new investments could go,” she said. “It hopefully prompts groups to fill in the gaps to help Montana’s food resources flow better.”

Karl Sutton, project manager for Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, who was involved in the commission of the 2011 economic analysis said that the primary purpose of the study was to understand the current status of our agriculture economy and find answers to the question, “What would the economic potential be if people in Western Montana could source their food directly from local producers.”

He said that currently $66 million is spent on food that’s coming from outside our region and many in his organization as well as other active partners are trying to discover ways to spend that same money to benefit Montana’s economy.

“Our work as well as the mapping project is helping to discover opportunities for growth,” he said.

A follow-up presentation to those hosted in Western Montana after the initial study in 2011 took place during the first weekend in March in Arlee. Sutton said representatives from all five western Montana counties are currently working together to increase communication and collaboration on exciting projects that network the food producers, farmers markets, and outlets like restaurants, stores, schools and charitable organizations.

“We’re trying to bridge communication on all these projects that will speed up development,” Sutton said.

State funding of the mapping project was matched with Federal funds under the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The map’s layers can be overlaid to discover densities of farmers markets with growers and restaurants, for example. Symbols differentiate producers by category like dairy, poultry, livestock, fish and honey. Another layer of the map can be overlaid to show the potential for processing and distribution in the region in relation to the commodities.

Matheson said that for now, her mapping project is intended to help serve the food commerce infrastructure in Montana, “it’s not designed for marketing purposes but it may turn into that.”

Stacie Duce regularly contributes to special sections of the Ravalli Republic and can be reached at duceswild7@gmail.com

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