Former MSU student and professor explore new options for local food in Bozeman

By Krysti Shallenberger Explore Big Sky Contributor

BOZEMAN – Dylan Strike suffered from the same problem gripping most college freshman: what to do with his future. Then he attended a lecture about agro-ecology that changed his life plan.

An 18-year old at Montana State University at the time, Strike started school undeclared, and although he’d never tried growing food – except toiling in his grandparents’ herb and vegetable garden in Minnesota for two weeks every summer – he chose agro-ecology after the lecture.

After trying out the fledging sustainable food and biosystems program at MSU, Strike chose to go the farming route, especially after a stint at the university project Towne’s Harvest Garden.

Out of the program appeared his short video “Bozeman Eats,” created with his classmate Sam Atkins.

“The motivation was to show was what’s going on the Gallatin Valley,” Strike said.

The initial three-month long class project turned into a year-long endeavor. Strike and Atkins applied for grants to complete their film and finished the final project last winter to well-received reviews from the local community and their professors.

“There is no connection between people and their food,” Strike said, explaining his drive to produce the video.

Half a century ago, Montanans grew more than 70 percent of their food, according a report by the food policy coalition, Grow Montana. Now only 10 percent of food is produced in the state, the number slowly decreasing with agriculture practices.

Strike blames the increasing reliance on corporate-grown food instead of buying from local farmers as a primary cause behind the agriculture decline.

“It’s really concentrated, and not everyone is involved,” Strike said.

His former professor and current boss Dean Williamson at Three Hearts Garden said Bozeman’s local food system is “plateauing” because the process of purchasing land is so difficult.

“Right now the market value does not take into account anything but commercial development,” Williamson said.

Williamson was a board member with the Bozeman Community Food Co-op when he noticed the disparity between his knowledge of food and interacting with those who grow it.

He searched for land, and finally purchased four acres a year later, starting Three Hearts. Now four years later, Williamson apprentices students like Strike from MSU’s sustainable food and biosystems program.

“The only way I could understand food production is to start growing it myself,” Williamson said.

The local food demand in Bozeman picked up in the last five years, said Alison Harmon, associate professor in Health and Human Development and a founder of the university’s sustainable agriculture program. However, the number of Bozeman residents buying local food at the farmer’s market and the interest in local food doesn’t don’t match, she said.

Williamson concurs: “We have limited supply for population size, but not enough demand to scale up supply. We’re trying to convince people that part of local food is growing what comes naturally,” he said, noting that also means buying in season.

He understands the short growing season in Bozeman means CSAs – or Community-Supported Agriculture – can only deliver certain vegetables in a specific season. One week the boxes might be filled with beets and kale, the next, lettuce and tomatoes. Ultimately it’s what can grow in Montana’s short, dry summers.

Bozeman farmers face the same struggles as other farmers across the nation, he added. The weather, the climate, and the financial issues are always a part of farming.

But, Williamson and Harmon say, consumers have the power to change local food.

“[You’ve] got to be willing to pick up the produce and process it in the kitchen, and we have a public lazy with food,” Harmon said. “It’s important that we establish this alternative network.”

Montana local food stats:

From the state departments of Environmental Quality and Environmental Agriculture:

60 million acres in Montana are used for agricultural purposes out of a total of 93 acres.

Out of the 60 million acres, 18 million is actual cropland, with 38 million used as rangeland.

50 percent of 18 million acres are used for wheat, 30 percent is hay and 9 percent is barley with everything else as other.

132,029 acres of cropland were certified organic, with another 83,219 acres of pasturelands under certification.