Eat Beef, Build Jobs

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.



“The Cows and the Horses”


WSE member producer, the J Bar L ranch, is profiled in this great video short by the Perennial Plate. Manager Bryan Ulring explains the ranch’s philosophy of sustainability:  “We manage for a future resource base. What we want our future resource base to look like is a lot like what it probably looked like 150 years ago, 200 years ago. This ground that we manage has evolved with herd impact.” Take a quick look at how this outfit “creates a product that is good for people, good for the land and good for the animals.”

“Mob Local” This Holiday Season

This holiday season, take time to “mob local” in Bozeman and Livingston.

Like the “flash mobs” that entertain passers-by across the world, a concerted effort of holiday shoppers can have a surprising effect on our community.

If we all spend a portion of our holiday gift giving at independent, local businesses, our holiday spirit will impact many more people than just our friends and family. If each of Bozeman’s 14,614 households (US Census, 2010) spends $50 of their holiday expenditures in independent businesses, $730,700 would circulate within the Bozeman community.  Among the 3,188 Livingston households, this same commitment would generate $159,400.  When those businesses in turn spend those dollars again within the community, that amount is multiplied.  In all, that $890,000 in local holiday spending would generate somewhere between $4.5 and $7 million dollars in sales in just two of Montana’s communities.

 In recent years, the ‘buy local’ movement has gained a lot of momentum, and with good reason. Buying locally keeps money circulating within a community, aids the local economy through taxes and economic development, and rejuvenates our historic town centers.

It’s easy, however, to see the value in buying local but then leave the concept at home when you’re trying to save money. Why buy something from a locally owned retailer when you can get a similar (though not necessarily equivalent) item 20 percent cheaper at a box store or on-line?

When you spend your money at a local retailer, you support not only that business, but also your community. Local retailers are members of the community, invested in the success of your community as much as you are. Independently owned businesses traditionally support area non-profits, schools and athletic teams more than corporate chain businesses. Independently owned businesses create the unique character that helps define a community. Financially secure businesses provide stable jobs, and when you support a business that regularly purchases their supplies from other local businesses, your dollar will benefit your neighbors even more.

Furthermore, local businesses employ the services of accountants, lawyers, and other professionals within our community, while national chains are more likely to contract those professional services at the corporate level somewhere outside of our community or even our country.

But if that money is spent at a box store or online, this ‘economic multiplier effect’ diminishes drastically as it never has a chance to ripple throughout our local economy.

This holiday season, spend the extra buck to support a locally owned business. A great way to “mob local” today is to shop at the Livingston Holiday Farmers Market Saturday, December 3rd at the Livingston Civic Center, organized by Western Sustainability Exchange. Over 30 farmers, ranchers and artisans will be on hand to offer up the best of local products.

Profitable Ranches Benefit More Than the Ranchers

Much of what we love about our state—our communities, our culture, our outdoor recreational opportunities—depends upon one of Montana’s top industries. Agriculture is a $2.8 billion industry that fuels our rural economy. Over 60 million acres, or two-thirds of the State’s landmass, are in agricultural production. Most of this is rangeland used for raising livestock and a source of critical habitat for wildlife.

The endurance of this industry and the economic benefits it brings to the state hinge on a healthy, productive natural resource base–soil, air, water and biodiversity. Stewardship of these resources in turn depends upon the economic viability of the agricultural operations that manage these lands.

 Western Sustainability Exchange focuses on increasing the profitability of family farms and ranches through the use of sustainable practices. These practices significantly reduce chemical use, prevent overgrazing, use fencing to minimize impacts on streams and other sensitive areas, use integrated pest management programs to control unwanted plants, animals and insects, and monitor ecological changes to determine resource health and adjust management strategies accordingly.

Not only do these practices protect natural resources, they also increase ranch profitability between 15 and 25 percent through reduced input costs and enhanced productivity. Sustainable practices also yield quality products valued by niche markets in the natural food and culinary sectors, which typically pay premiums for sustainably produced foods.

The first week of November, WSE is organizing half-day workshops in Billings, Lewistown, Ennis and Helena specifically designed to improve the bottom line for ranchers. WSE is partnering with Dave Pratt of the Ranching for Profit (RFP) School because of the impressive success enjoyed by the alumni of the RFP model. Alumni boast an average Return on Assets of a positive 4%. This compares to the dismal negative 1.5% average Return on Assets (excluding land appreciation) for most US ranch operations.

Pratt, who has taught the Ranching for Profit School for 20 years, will discuss ways of increasing the availability of working capital, how to increase profit by structuring one’s operation to be in sync with natural cycles and the three ways to increase profit.

 Over the last decade many family farms and historic ranches have been lost to development, bankruptcy and family disagreement. And in most cases, a loss of profitability is to blame.

 All Montanans have a vested interest in the sustainability of our region. Whether for hunting and fishing, healthy local food, vibrant communities or simply the majestic landscapes that are the hallmark of the region, we rely on the stewardship of Montana’s natural resources. We rely, in other words, on profitable farm and ranch businesses.

Sustainable Cuisine: Beyond Local

There is nothing quite like sitting down to a great meal at a favorite restaurant. Particularly if that meal is made from sustainably grown local food. More and more chefs are embracing the concept of sustainable cuisine because the food is fresher, more flavorful and packed with nutrition. But the benefits extend far beyond the meal itself.

Most of America’s foods are raised for an industrialized system that relies on chemical-intensive production. These “commodities” are shipped in a raw form to huge facilities owned by multi-national corporations, where it is processed, packaged and distributed throughout the world. Today our food can travel thousands of miles to get to our plates.

Sustainable cuisine, on the other hand, is created with foods that are not only raised locally but are also grown with sustainable agricultural practices. These practices include crops grown with a minimal reliance on herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and livestock raised without hormones or antibiotics. Sustainable practices also treat animals humanely, protect water quality, maintain fish and wildlife habitat and preserve open space.

The concept of sustainable eating doesn’t end with the food. It extends to the practices used by the restaurants. Just as on a farm or a ranch, a restaurant can use sustainable practices that conserve natural resources and save money at the same time.

According to the Green Restaurant Association, restaurants are the largest consumer of electricity in the commercial sector. Also, the average restaurant can use 300,000 gallons of water and produce 150,000 pounds of garbage each year.

Restaurants practicing sustainable methods use many of the same conservation techniques we use in our homes. They conserve energy with efficient lighting and Energy Star appliances together with fresh air heat exchangers, heat recovery systems and barriers between outside air and interior seating areas. Some install low-flow toilets and reduce the flow rates of sinks and dishwashers to reduce water use. They reduce the impacts of waste by using low-impact take-out ware, composting leftovers and donating extra food to food banks. Some restaurants purchase green energy credits or, like Café Regis in Red Lodge and Norris Hot Springs, install solar panels. Both restaurants join 2nd Street Bistro and Chico Hot Springs in cultivating their own gardens to supply some of their produce needs.

But of course, the most important action a restaurant can take is to buy food from Montana producers using sustainable methods. And, be willing to reward the superior flavor and stewardship by paying a reasonable premium for the products.

Consumers can increase the availability of sustainable cuisine by also being willing to pay more for local food and patronizing the restaurants dedicated to sustainable cuisine.

How do you find these businesses? WSE has a comprehensive program, the Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection, which certifies farmers, ranchers and restaurants that use sustainable practices. Twenty-four area businesses are participating in the program. See our list for both qualified producers and restaurants throughout Montana. You can also look for Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection posters and plaques in participating businesses.

Supporting the businesses that provide sustainable cuisine is a delicious way to conserve dwindling natural resources and preserve the environmental, cultural and economic legacies that are Montana.

Please Your Palate and Preserve Montana

Sixty million acres of mountain meadows, grasslands, riparian areas and river systems. 60 million acres of open space, wildlife habitat and migration corridors. 60 million acres, or two-thirds of the state of Montana, are under the stewardship of Montana farm and ranch families who produce food for our state and our country.

Montana’s environment and food production are inextricably linked.

Much of this agricultural land base is managed conventionally with practices that often rely on herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, the use of hormones to promote livestock growth and antibiotics to preempt disease outbreaks.  Traditional grazing paradigms have often led to overgrazing which has hampered range condition, wildlife habitats and the land’s water storage capacity.  In short a myriad of environmental and health problems may result from these practices, from water pollution to unproductive land to antibiotic resistant bacteria and food contamination.

A small number of farmers and ranchers, however, are embracing an alternative approach that uses techniques to protect air, soil and water from contamination and actually improve range health and biodiversity. These “sustainable agricultural practices” significantly reduce chemical use, eliminate hormones and genetically engineered seeds and feeds, reduce antibiotic use, employ low-stress animal handling techniques and manage livestock to prevent overgrazing.

To attract more agricultural producers to adopting such practices that protect the land, WSE has developed a comprehensive program that educates farmers and ranchers about the economic and environmental benefits of sustainable practices and how to employ them. WSE rewards this stewardship by connecting “sustainable” producers to culinary and natural food markets and directly to consumers.

These local, sustainable food products command modest premiums in the marketplace from the growing base of health-conscious consumers.  These premiums pass back to the farmer or rancher and financially reward sustainable food production.  This system directly benefits those 60 million precious acres by enhancing the economic viability of Montana’s family farmers and ranchers and ensuring the continued stewardship of our incomparable landscapes and resource base.

We use a Sustainability Criteria© to confirm that the agricultural practices used by farmers and ranchers do indeed protect human and livestock health and the integrity of the environment.  We developed the Criteria in consultation with range specialists, wildlife biologists, ranchers, farmers, chefs and consumer researchers.  A combination of legally binding affidavits, tours of farm and ranch operations and our relationships with producers ensures that the standard as set out in the WSE Sustainability Criteria is met.  Only these qualifying producers does we then connect to appropriate markets.

WSE’s comprehensive approach to sustainability follows the integrity of sustainable foods into the marketplace.  As part of the Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection, WSE identifies restaurants and other food service businesses that are committed to sustainability.  By signing a Sustainability Pledge, participating restaurants commit to serving local, sustainably produced food and use practices that reduce energy and water consumption and waste.  In return, WSE promotes these businesses to consumers.

And therein lies the real power to preserve this wonderful state.  Western Sustainability Exchange believes that sustainability begins with everyday choices.  Readers can play an active role in the conservation of Montana’s open spaces simply by supporting one of the many restaurants and caterers belonging to WSE’s Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection.  Not only will you enjoy fine dining and fresh, healthy food, but you can also preserve the environmental quality of this region at the same time.

This year we are launching a new element to the program that recognizes outstanding efforts. WSE is presenting a “Certificate of Sustainability” to food service businesses that go above and beyond the pledge agreement and can verify their efforts. A badge of honor, if you will, that lets customers know the extra effort taken to reduce impacts and support the local food system. WSE is also using the Certificate of Sustainability to reduce the chance of “green washing,” a practice some businesses use to falsely claim green practices to appeal to the growing customer base for environmentally responsible businesses.

July 28th, we presented the first eight restaurants across the state with the new certificate.

More and more consumers, restaurants, caterers, and institutions across Montana are joining WSE’s efforts. Our economic incentive is working to increase the use of sustainable practices on the land.  As of 2010, WSE had helped conserve over 845,000 acres through the adoption of sustainable production practices. In 2010 our program work also generated over $750,000 in sales for farmers and ranchers in our program.

We have not done this alone. All along the way we have had the support of people who share our vision and commitment to the rural West. Together we are sustaining the environmental and cultural legacy we were left for our children’s children and the progeny of the other beings with whom we share this remarkable place.  We invite you to join our efforts.  After all, with two-thirds of our state’s land base in agricultural production, there are 60 million acres of grasslands, forests, river systems, and wildlife habitat at stake.

Conservation Farming

We recently received this 6-minute video.  In it, Helen Atthowe, Missoula County Extension Agent discusses her “Conservation Farming” techniques.

“The goal of our conservation farming is to increase farm profitability by decreasing labor and land requirements while striving to mimic the ecological principles that make native plant systems sustainable.  The ecological principles we hope to mimic include reduced tillage, increase species and genetic diversity, closed nutrient cycles, and creation of more diverse habitat.  We look at our farm from a landscape or watershed level and hope to reconnect wild areas, agriculture, and urban areas.  Conservation agriculture is both biologically and socially a local agriculture.”

Sustainability Starts with the Grass

Among the many challenges of sustainable agriculture—and member producers of WSE—is managing for a healthy and resilient land base.  This includes building soil, encouraging water to soak into the soil rather than run off or evaporate, efficiently capture sunlight, reduce the proportion of bare ground to plant cover, effectively cycle minerals from the soil and air through plants, animals, and back to the soil, and to preserve biodiversity and habitat for wildlife of all forms.

Before we can accomplish all this, we first need to recognize that this landscape is dominated by grasses.

Perennial grass plants and grazing animals have been living together for millions of years.  Over this course of time, grasses have adapted to periodic defoliation—that is, grazing.

Most grasses grow from growth points at the base of the plant, beyond the reach of a grazing animal’s muzzle.  When a grass plant is grazed, it immediately begins producing new leaves.

If, as often happens, the plant is grazed beyond its growth points, the plant is unable to photosynthesize and regrow its leaf area directly from the sun’s energy.  Instead, a “severely grazed” grass plant draws on its stored energy reserves—that is, its roots and stem base—to regrow those growth points.  As soon as sufficient new leaf area has grown, the plant begins manufacturing new carbohydrates through photosynthesis.  It then replenishes its energy reserves (that is, regrows its roots) and builds new leaf area.

Which brings up a separate point.  When a plant draws on its carbohydrate reserves, its roots draw back and leave skeletal remains behind.  When the plant replenishes its energy reserves it regrows its roots.  This cycle—retracting and regrowing its roots—effectively sequesters carbon into the soil.

Grasses have not only adapted to periodic grazing, but many in fact rely on it.  Without grazing, overrest occurs, and native bunchgrasses can become moribund and decadent and eventually die after years without defoliation.  This is primarily due to our seasonal, semi-arid environment.  Outside of the growing season, when this ecosystem is dominated by dry soil conditions, the microbes and insects that decompose plant material into the soil either die off or go dormant.  The only place these decomposers survive during long dry spells is in the gut of a grazing animal.  Without this decomposition, an overburden of dead material will develop in the center of these plants and shade the growth points at their base.  As new leaves emerge in the spring, this overburden inhibits their development.  Grasses literally depend on grazing for survival.

Grazing is thus an essential tool, in this landscape, for ecological preservation and even regeneration.  The issue is how grazing is used—not necessarily the type of grazer—and that’s what WSE tries to measure through our WSE Sustainability Criteria.

Nature’s Reliance on Habitat Areas and Migration Corridors

A big part of what draws people to the Northern Rockies is the chance to see and live close to wildlife, especially big game. Unfortunately, new landowners often find themselves in conflict with the very animals they came to enjoy.  This is because new homes are commonly built in historic winter range, calving grounds or migration corridors.

We also love to build next to a river, stream or lake in what is called the “riparian zone.”  These lush areas edging waterways are essential for wildlife.  Over 80% of all wildlife species use these areas during some part of their life cycle or as a safe migration corridor.

A corridor is a connecting strip of land that allows wildlife to travel safely from one large wild area to another. In this day and age of increasing human population and development, corridors are critical for the long-term survival of many wildlife species. As new roads and developments continue to sever critical corridors, wildlife becomes trapped, and healthy, genetically diverse populations weaken and disappear.

Some of our program work at WSE focuses on these critical wildlife areas–to promote sound stewardship of these resources and to enhance the economic viability of the farmers and ranchers who bear the responsibility of stewardship.  WSE also created the Welcome to the West Guide to offer helpful suggestions to new landowners to achieve the dream of owning a home in the West while protecting the region’s special qualities.