Farmland report identifies parcels at risk as Missoula grows

Nearly 20 percent of land suited for agriculture in Missoula County sits within two miles of the Missoula city limits, placing it at risk of development, according to a new study conducted by a University of Montana graduate student. This parcel sits off Mullan Road, just behind a new subdivision. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Nearly 20 percent of land suited for agriculture in Missoula County sits within two miles of the Missoula city limits, placing it at risk of development, according to a new study conducted by a University of Montana graduate student.

The study, “Farmland Mapping Report: An Analysis of Missoula County Agriculture,” suggests that while the county’s population grew 70 percent from 1970 to 2004, the amount of land developed has grown nearly 230 percent.

While some local policy makers look to apply the data from the new 54-page report to aid in future decisions surrounding growth, the Montana Organization of Realtors suggests that doing so alone would be shortsighted, possibly driving the cost of housing higher than it already is.

Yet without a well-formulated plan backed by detailed statistics, some fear that nearby agricultural parcels could be lost as the city and county accommodate growth.

“This rapid growth has resulted in the loss of agricultural lands to development, and a reduction in the number of large operational farms,” said Nick Zanetos. “This data could be a very useful tool for policy making in the county, particularly in the subdivision approval process.”

To help determine what remains suitable for farming, Zanetos – a master’s candidate in the geography department at UM – analyzed a number of factors, starting with lots over one acre in size, their soil types and access to water rights.

The results found roughly 2,370 agricultural units totaling 129,000 acres. When additional values are weighed, 17 parcels received a perfect score, representing those properties most suited for farming.

“They represent the most suitable parcels for agriculture,” Zanetos said. “This data gives us a baseline to see what a parcel has to offer in terms of agriculture.”

The Montana Department of Revenue defines a farm as a parcel greater than 160 acres under single ownership, though smaller parcels with proof of producing at least $1,500 in annual income also qualify.

In contrast, the Montana Department of Agriculture defines a farm as any parcel from which $1,000 or more in agricultural products are either produced or sold during a single year.

Such units are classified as Farm Land Units, and nearly 10 percent of them sit within one-half mile of the city limits, while more than 12 percent sit within two miles. The data suggests these parcels are most at risk of disappearing with urban sprawl.

“When you add up the entire five-mile buffer, 37.4 percent of the overall Farm Land Unit parcels are within that area,” said Zanetos. “That accounts for 31.9 percent of the total agricultural acres.”

John DiBari, a Missoula City Council member representing Ward 4, believes the definition of a Farm Land Unit may be misleading. It may have more to do with a property’s tax status than it does with its potential for farming.

“If we’re going to set policy on the 10 or 17 best parcels, then we’re going down the wrong track,” said DiBari. “The amount of land that meets the Department of Revenue’s definition of agriculture is a tiny subset of the amount of land in the county that’s actually suitable for agriculture, based on soil type and other characteristics.”

DiBari praised the new study, saying local government has long lacked a repository for such information. While he’d like to see the county maintain the new data set, he believes it’s unlikely to do so.

As a result, it’s something the city will consider doing on its own.

“There’s a lot of land being used for agriculture within half a mile of the city limits – it’s 12 percent,” DiBari said. “That speaks to the interest that people in this community have for local food. There’s tons of other questions we could ask around this data that yield interesting results for setting policy.”

But Sam Sill, the pubic affairs director for the Missoula Organization of Realtors, said the city must consider more than the data in the new farmland report when making policy decisions.

While the information may be useful, he said, other factors come into play.

“Missoula faces a crisis of housing affordability, and addressing it is a stated goal for the city of Missoula,” said Sill. “New policies that shrink the supply of developable land could worsen the affordability problem, which would run contrary to the city’s goals.”

In part, the study’s stated purpose is to identify farmland and divert development to areas not suited for farming. At the same time, however, Sill said the city and area developers have invested in infrastructure near the urban fringe, including sewer, roads, schools and parks.

It’s in these areas, he said, where development should occur.

“We need to remember that housing built where infrastructure exists is more affordable for consumers and less costly for local governments,” said Sill. “We shouldn’t use policy to stop people from building housing where it makes the most sense for it to be built.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at