The 2007 agriculture census accounted for 2.5 million cattle in Montana. Without a doubt, ranching is a significant industry in our region.
Only a fraction of the cattle raised in this state, however, are finished, slaughtered, and processed into steaks and burgers within Montana. In fact, only about 1% of Montana’s cattle are processed in state. At Western Sustainability Exchange we feel that this represents a lost economic opportunity for our region.
Agriculture is one of Montana’s few value creation industries. But due to our infrastructure, or lack thereof, the actual wealth generated in Montana by our ag-based businesses falls far short of its potential. The fact that nearly all of the cattle raised here are shipped out-of-state for the value-adding that turns cattle into T-bones and tenderloins drives at an issue of concern for many Montanans today: jobs.
Up until the late 50’s, over 60% of the food Montanans consumed was produced within the state. In addition to feeding the state’s population, a variety of crops were processed for commercial sale. In 1947 over 4,000 Montanans drew paychecks from more than 200 canneries, dairies, slaughterhouses and mills processing Montana food across the state. That’s more than three facilities per county.
But following World War II, Montana slowly began to lose its manufacturing capacity. With specialization and consolidation in the agriculture industry and the completion of the interstate highway system, more and more of the food grown in the state was exported as bulk raw agricultural commodities. Today only about 10% of the food Montanans eat is produced by Montana farmers and ranchers. Beef cattle and most other commodities are shipped out of state for processing and then imported to feed the state’s citizens. This means that most of the value of consumers’ food dollars is exported along with the state’s raw commodities.
The process of adding value to a commodity requires processing infrastructure as well as human labor. By giving up value-added food manufacturing, Montana communities have lost potentially hundreds of small businesses and jobs.
At WSE we feel that recapturing even a portion of that value-added processing represents a large opportunity for keeping Montana the wonderful place that we’re all proud to call home.
For the past 18 years, WSE has worked to protect our region’s valuable natural resources, open spaces, and cultural heritage through the advancement of sustainable agriculture. As we’ve worked with restaurants, institutions and retailers to cultivate a market for local, sustainably raised foods, we’ve witnessed the creation of jobs and the reallocation of hundreds of thousands of dollars towards local food sources. As we’ve worked with ranchers we’ve witnessed the increased financial sustainability of ag operations and the preservation of hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. WSE’s newest project, the Steer to Steak Initiative, is an effort to cultivate our region’s value-adding capacity for meats. Viable regional processing and value added manufacturing will help Montanans prosper and keep our state a good place to work. It will improve consumer access to Montana raised foods and, by supporting sustainable agriculture, will ensure the continued stewardship of the natural world that makes our state a wonderful place to live.
What’s your role? As consumers, each of us can use our consumer power to demand local, sustainably raised food that benefits Montana and Montanans. If you can’t find it, ask for it. A good place to start might be to seek beef that is finished, slaughtered, and processed in Montana. But whenever possible, make eating choices that benefit your friends and neighbors and help build Montana’s economy.