Green manure for dayssss and renewable energy in Montana: policy updates and on-the-ground stories…

Green manure for dayssss!

With green manure crops, farmers don’t need to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Here nature is doing what it does best.

In early June, the Montana Organic Association held a farm tour at Alger Ranch in Stanford, Montana. At my last count, over 80 people were there to learn about the Alger organic farm and ranch operation. Jess Alger has been an organic farmer and

Rancher. Farmer. Tourmaster.  Jess Alger

Rancher. Farmer. Tourmaster. Jess Alger

rancher since 2004, which means he stopped spraying his crops with chemical pesticides and stopped using chemical fertilizers, in 2001. He uses “green manure” like lentils, peas, black medic.  These plants contain nitrogen-fixing symbiotic bacteria in root nodules that fix atmospheric nitrogen in a form that plants can use and perform the vital function of fertilization

Jess started using black medic in his fields, to boost the nitrogen in the soil, as early

Nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria!

Nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria!

as 1994. He found that using a legume cover crop saved him $43 less in weed management costs per acre.

What about weeds? Jess’s livestock are his weed control: “they gorge where it is green.”  The thistles are gone.  Flea beetles from BLM reduce the leafy spurge. He doesn’t have to weed.

The tour headed out in a caravan of cars to one of Jess’s fields of lentils.  David Oien, of Timeless Foods tells the crowd how farmers need to put on green manure first to build the soil when you’re farming without chemicals.  Jess grows certified organic lentils here.  Dave gave us a little history lesson about lentils.  They’ve been around for 10,000 years—probably 18,000.  People have used them for soil-building and eating.  They were brought to IMG_0494Montana in the 1980s by Jim Simms from Montana State University. Lentils need 12-14 in annual precipitation because they “don’t like wet feet.”  Not only are lentils good for dry climates (and tasty—I have a mean lentil brownie recipe), it breaks disease cycles—wheat pests don’t like lentils.  Lentils support biodiversity above and below: pulse crops build vitality in the soil and work well in rotation.  Did you know that Montana is the #1 in organic IMG_0490lentils, conventional lentils, and also peas?  According to Dave, lentils can yield a $400-600 gross return/acre. The key to growing these pulse crops in a way that works with the land and doesn’t use chemicals is long-term planning for long-term production. And you definitely don’t want a monoculture.  Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong remarked how Montana is diversifying its agriculture, noting even conventional farmers learn from organic’s practices like crop rotation—and they do.


Can you identify this plant?

Can you identify this plant?

Can you identify this plant

Can you identify this plant?

Can you identify this plant?

The Alger Ranch wind generator

The Alger Ranch wind generator

Not only is Jess growing food organically, and raising happy cows free of chemicals, but he also powers his operation with a 10 kW net metered wind turbine that supplies 99% of the ranch’s electricity.  Jess installed the  wind turbine in 2003, purchasing it mostly with a very large grant.  It averages about 1,000 kWh a month. Jess has a net metering agreement with NorthWestern Energy, allowing him to produce electricity for his own use and sending the excess to the local power grid for his neighbors to use. Jess only has to pay a power bill 3 or 4 times a year, and then it is always less than $50.  He figures he saves about $100 every month.

Renewable energy sources help Montana’s farmers and ranchers power their operations in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way, and it also cuts costs so they can farm and ranch in a way that aligns with their values.  Net metering gives homeowners full credit for the energy they produce with their solar or wind system and allows them to use any excess electricity they produce to offset their electric bill.  The system’s kilowatts are first used to power the home, and any extra kilowatts are fed into the utility grid.

Unfortunately, the Montana Legislature failed to pass any of the net metering bills brought before it in the 2015 Legislative Session, choosing instead to conduct an Interim Legislative study on net metering with SJ 12.  Montana’s Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (EITC) met on June 5 to develop their plan for the study, including a cost/benefit analysis of net metering, the economic impact of net metering in Montana, as well as cost shifts, if any, between net-metering customers and customers who do not net meter. Information about the June 5 meeting, including a draft of the work plan, can be found here.  The next meeting is on September 11 at 9:00 am.  In the meantime, written comments can be submitted to the EITC via email.  Further, the EITC sent a series of questions to certain stakeholders, those questions can be found here, and additional parties can respond to the questions by September 1.

This windmill makes it possible for Jess to farm the way he does.  You can find out more about Jess’s windmill here, and search for other Montanans’ energy success stories in the  Repower MT Directory.

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Lassila Farm Tour: Guest Post from Communications & Membership Director Corrie Wiliamson

The day is scorching, and I have left the Big Belts and the red rock canyons along I-15 far behind me: what’s left is an endless stretch of that famous Montana big sky rolling east toward the plains, the mountains a hazy, jagged dream on the horizon. I skirt the edge of Great Falls sprawl, make a few turns down increasingly quiet and dusty roads, and am reassured that I’m on the right track when I spot the sign on the roadside proclaiming: ORGANIC FARMING. NO SPRAY ZONE. _MJm85cdiuzUGupjTLlVjcoX6pJ0xL4RDzMvBwvJDsSRt8-DeXtYw8MABAZTYNs6exh_jFD32GtkIWIiADsXtMo3SYPh65nGfOerjKfSg4PW89shOkyDGU8z3NjMrpMvqq_EEsPrcirwrvnndlq8E4Z3HLIgORcULESldt68tfSCpMxE4DM0qUgvRFAQUyhQDEFOgXEeiLcm5G12POXsH

I’m joining a group of nearly 80 observers for a farm tour put on by the Montana Organic Association (MOA) at the Lassila Organic Farm, owned by Daryl and Linda Lassila, whose crops include crimson lentils, spelt, and several wheat varieties. I don’t know a soul, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my two years in Montana, it’s that Montanans are friendly folks. And in my few weeks at AERO, I’m learning that farmers tend to rank among the friendliest of Montanans. Sure enough, pretty soon I’m shaking hands with Daryl, chatting with longtime AERO member John Brown (who whips off his straw hat in his excitement to tell me about his latest adventures in carbon farming), and catching a ride in MOA Board Chairman Nate Brown’s truck, since there are so many of us we’re carpool-caravanning around the Lassila’s 2300 acres.

I wasn't kidding about the caravan...

I wasn’t kidding about the caravan…

Our first stop is a hole in the ground. Daryl has plowed up a section of earth about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and props his portable amplifier up nearby, encouraging us to climb into the pit as he explains its purpose: to show us just how deep the roots of the pesky Canada thistle weed go – and they are deep. These perennial weeds are tough. Their roots can extend up to ten feet into the ground, so pulling them does no good, and plowing or cutting them only results in more root pieces that will bud into multiplied thistle. Because the Lassila’s farm is organic, their solution to weed troubles must be, too. One method they’ve tried, Daryl explains, is spraying the thistle with vinegar (imported in semi trucks from Seattle), but it’s a temporary solution at best, and I can see the farmers in the crowd nodding sympathetically as Daryl explains that this is simply one of the challenges faced in doing this kind of work. Many in the crowd chime in with questions or anecdotes about their own trials and triumphs with thistles (go ahead: say it three times fast).

Checking out those thistle roots...

Checking out those thistle roots…

At our next stop, Daryl talks more about crop rotation, and his summer fallow fields, where he plants cover crops like Austrian winter peas and sudangrass to help fix nitrogen in the soil and break up the hardpan. The Lassila farm has a Conservation Stewardship Program contract with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and many acres of his farm are not actively producing, but building strong soil renewably through the use of these plow down crops. And while Daryl jokes that “fertilizer” might be a dirty word, he’s using it sustainably as well, in the form of phosphate rock, organic compost, and chicken manure (which he currently ships from Idaho in semis. That day, however, Daryl made his own connection with a Hutterite organic chicken farmer who had come for the tour, and perhaps a chicken-manure partnership is about to blossom).

Without a doubt, one of the messages of the day is that sustainability isn’t easy. The Lassilas are dryland farming in an area that averages 14 inches of rainfall a year. But they’re are also clearly having fun, and they’re forming relationships that help them do their work well, through the kind of communal, collaborative effort that is a marker of sustainable communities in Montana, and everywhere.

qE1pvVnNNMgQCX036Tdni6xZ1my1gvMaey4QmLTXg2Vwaof3Nw8rM6CStw9V-sa_78mqxwzzC_exDNRL3D86P27HPN4gHaJYGOIIPnaaaRvMDDCGEmXN2sBxniQy_9KEY7ZEitBkdhtgkkNZdpnPpCoORq1k_ZNav5PYveiQKOKialqXdQ3KeEvNBmtFzprxH6ZT1XTXAAiRAjU3lagNH (As if to remind us that challenges abound, but are best faced with humor and kindness, the universe sends my newfound friend and tour driver Nate Brown a text, letting him know that a new employee on his family’s farm mistook the eggplant shoots in the greenhouse for weeds, and pulled them all out. Nate laughs, and says they’ll probably be just fine with a little gentle replanting and extra care.)

Collaboration. Tolerance. Fun. These are clearly essential qualities of the Lassila operation, and part of what has brought all these people here to walk through wheat fields in 90 degree weather. More fun: a set of brightly painted, psychedelic beehives nestle in the farm’s coulee, provided by researchers at MSU (according to Brian Rogers, who heads that partnership, the distinctive design makes it easier for the bees, who forage up to 3 miles away, to find their particular hive . . . But I have a sneaking suspicion somebody was just having a good time decorating beehives). More collaboration: another farmer, Jess Alger (stay tuned for Jen’s post about her tour of the Alger Ranch!), grazes his cattle on the Lassila’s sudangrass fields (but only after a hard freeze, when the prussic acid that endangers cows has been nullified). And, finally, more tolerance: on our last stop, where we admire dense, nearly harvest ready spring wheat as far as the eye can see, Daryl carefully points out his neighbor’s buffer zone. The farm next door uses conventional chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, but they are careful to leave a significant barrier between their lands, and not spray on windy days, respecting the Lassila’s operation and avoiding any risk of contamination and endangerment of the organic status of the Lassila crop. qdLBA1j3kL_KwSUMyWXGSIsJ6MTkw47ARL25zND8rZS9x1hHInoyf73muLMwVKLUDDAgFQLiKTzmn6jsyrTTFfknpIcXeVD-fbL9TKTGsDROgdz-xfVIC-B2CUJZzPKeL9fMg1kjmQGjnGC3w6qiwQkEyrd0Hkv6JfZKE-lqbi4dh_SgfD2pv3dLESDY8ii7JBur7ClvsaS0JaRMxM_Q3

At the tour’s end, I thank Nate Brown for the ride and the goat chats. (Alongside his parents, Nate runs Amaltheia Organic Dairy. Their cheese is DELICIOUS, and the dairy is named after the goat that suckled the Greek god Zeus: oh how I love nerdy farmers! Their herd is over 200 goats, and I grew up on a small cashmere goat farm in Virginia, so we have lots of notes to compare.) I take a last gander at the rows of ancient tractors collected by the Lassilas, eat a few cookies, and climb back into my dusty Subaru.

Daryl's daughter is part of the crowd, listening to her dad discuss crop rotation and using plow downs to build soil.

Daryl’s daughter is part of the crowd, listening to her dad discuss crop rotation and using plow downs to build soil.

As I make my way back towards the asphalt and traffic of Great Falls, I am once more struck by how grateful I am to have joined AERO, and to be able to observe, support, and pursue work that is good for individuals, communities, and the earth. I’m reminded of a quote dear to my heart, by Wendell Berry – poet, philosopher, longtime activist and my second favorite farmer (after my dad) whose words of wisdom Jen and I swoon over pretty much daily in the office. It’s about good work, the kind of work the Summer Sustainability Tour, and AERO generally, is seeking out, and aiming to support. Berry writes, “We are working well when we use ourselves as the fellow creatures of the plants, animals, materials, and other people we are working with. Such work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and from despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.”

Radical Humility

“So long as they have to operate within a cheap-food economy that externalizes its social and environmental costs, both farmers and eaters will be forced into the false choice between a healthy environment and their own bottom line. Timeless Seeds has prepared fertile ground—an incredible demonstration of what’s possible. But they can’t fix the food system alone. That’s a job for all of us.” Lentil Underground, p 251.

It’s been nearly a month since I traveled to Red Lodge for the Lentil Underground talk and tasting event on June 4.   I have been nearly done with the Lentil Underground ever since then, and I wanted to finish it before I wrote this post. Lentil Underground coverAnd I just finished it. I cannot pick my favorite quote or part about this book, but I am grateful for the way the author, Liz Carlisle, hammers down on what it is that has made the farmers in the book so successful: Community.

I realize that on its own, the above statement sounds a little precious (or a lot precious). But, perhaps it is. And that’s okay. Sometimes we need a little precious.  I’m not going to give the book away (read: BUY IT NOW; IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE), but it tells the story of how these farmers changed farming systems so they have a choice in how they grow their food, giving us a choice in the quality of food we get to eat: “Dave started with the same basic principles [of farming in Montana] and tried to figure out what a Montana organic operation might look like.” Lentil Underground, p 23.  With community, they were able to change systems and the minds of those supporting or running those systems, who had everything they didn’t have: money, status quo, and systems in place that make it difficult to change the way you farm, even if you wanted to. When they heard “no/impossible/can’t,” they looked for another way. “You know, if you’re not going to do what we need you to do, then we’re going to do it ourselves,” said Gene May, farmer, frustrated when MSU didn’t originally provide support for the renegade’s way of sustainable farming. Lentil Underground, p 27.

The lentil underground farmers’ successes are possible because they kept going. They have gumption, open minds, heart, forward-thinking & positive attitudes, presence, and science.  It is undeniable that access to land played a key role for these farmers and their successes.  Their risks made the sustainable agriculture landscape we see today, and they were able to take those risks because they worked together, on their land, sharing machines, and sharing big, unknown risks in their unchartered territory.  They took a cue from nature’s successful interdependence templates:

“[t]o build biological fertility is to build community—to accept interdependence with other creatures and foster a common     benefit. This way of life cultivates a new kind of awareness, a new empathy.  You have to pay attention beyond this       homestead.  You have to pay attention beyond this season.” Lentil Underground, p 244.

Driving from Fishtail to Red Lodge

On the way from Fishtail to Red Lodge

Building Community in Red Lodge, Montana

The Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council is building that kind of community.  Started by a handful of folks in the Red Lodge area, the mission of the RLAFPC is:

to vigorously promote a sustainable, local food system that encourages a better quality of life for our citizens, improves our community’s economy and self-reliance and preserves the land for generations to come.

Parting is such sweet sorrow...

Parting is such sweet sorrow…

The RLAFPC focuses on local food: growing it, teaching about it, and eating it.  They were the sponsors of the Lentil Underground talk on June 4, 2015, bringing in Dave Oien to talk about the history of Timeless Seeds, myself from AERO, and Chef Claudia. I left the gorgeous White Deer Ranch (see previous post!), headed through Fishtail, and arrived at the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge, Montana.

The Lentil Underground is in Red Lodge!

The Lentil Underground is in Red Lodge!

The word was out and members of the Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council were getting the place set up. I was greeted by founders Janet Peterson and Margie Adams, who were making the lounge ready for the crowds wanting to hear about these renegade farmers people keep talking about.  The talk was taking place in the main hall, which had been rearranged to accommodate the evening’s presentations.  And there were indeed elks present.  Mounted on the walls were many elk heads.  “We had to call the local chiropractor to come set up the sound system,” joked Janet, pointing over to the gentleman helping Martha Brown and Dave Oien get the sound system ready for Dave’s presentation later.  Martha, another RLAFPC founder and also a beloved AERO board member, came over to say hi.   We chitchatted and rearranged chairs to make room for tables and displays.   

Eating Local

We headed to lunch at Cafe Regis in Red Lodge.  One of the first things I noticed was the sign by the register next to beautiful, tall, sturdy green asparagus stalks, advertising their availability for purchase.  Cafe Regis started growing its food before it was cool—well, for a while, at least.  Not only do they serve local food, but they are making their own energy, as wellDSC00210They serve breakfast and lunch, and buy local and organic as much as possible.  Joining us for lunch was Margie, Dave, and Martha Brown, as well as their significant others.  Janet and I sat across from each other, and to her right was Emma Fernandez, the current Food Corps member in Red Lodge.  I looked at the menu and I was having a hard time choosing.  Chef Martha Young sat down and informed us that she had some oyster mushrooms she was hoping to cook and offered to throw them in a dish for any of us at the table—until they ran out.  Several folks ordered the famous Heaping Bowl and added the mushrooms as one of the ingredients.  I saw that one of the specials was French Toast with rhubarb compote and fresh whipped cream.  (Remember that rhubarb goat’s milk latte I was raving about from the Dunn’s?) Decision. Made.

I had to get a bit of work done on budgeting and securing funding for marketing of AERO’s updated and upgraded Abundant Montana Directory, Montana’s comprehensive online source for sustainable agriculture and sustainably-produced food. I headed over to Honey’s Cafe for a place to work and a treat.  There is some construction being done on the roads around Red Lodge, and  I waited behind one of the workers clad in a bright yellow fluorescent vest as he paid for the Kombucha (a pro-biotic drink) he selected out of the cooler. Welcome to Red Lodge: We Love (Y)Our Guts.

I met up with several folks, including Martha Brown and Dave Oien, at Red Lodge Books and Tea where Dave Oien was signing Lentil Underground books.  It was here that I met a man who travels internationally to help impoverished communities grow their own food.  He got his start at an AERO Annual Meeting with two seeds given to him by an AERO member.  Just two seeds to feed people, and teach how to feed people. It’s that simple.

Lentil Underground in Red Lodge

The room was packed.  The lighting was soft.  The elk were watching.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  Martha Brown opened the event with a few thank yous and introductions.  She invited Chef Claudia Galofre-Krevat of Claudia’s Mesa, to take the microphone to describe the dishes she made and do her demonstrations. Volunteers walked around the room with a sample of each dish on plates for the audience to try. She’s been working with Timeless Seeds to craft Latin-inspired fusion dishes featuring their products and she’s also at work on a cookbook, tentatively titled Pulse of the Earth: Local Food Global Flavors, which has already been signed by Liz Carlisle’s agent, Jessica Papin of Dystel & Goderich Literary.

Dave Oien of Timeless Food went up next and went through the history of Timeless Seeds, the abbreviated and more humble version of what you will get in the book (a must-see if you haven’t already).  It is humbling and moving, and inspirational, to hear Dave talk about how much of an influence AERO and the Farm Improvement Clubs had on the successes of Timeless.

Martha Brown, Dave Oien, and me at the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge, Montana.

Martha Brown, Dave Oien, and me at the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge, Montana.

I went up next and briefly talked about the work AERO is doing, but also the work we want to do.  I talked about my tour and how I am traveling to talk with communities to learn more about the sustainability work folks are doing and how they want to see their futures develop, and find ways AERO can help.

Martha Young of Cafe Regis went next.  She described the dessert she made and thanked everyone for coming.  And then she went in on a moving pitch for supporting the RLAFPC.  I won’t be able to do her words justice, but she talked about the history of the RLAFPC and how impressed she was in the amount of change this group had been able to accomplish in the short amount of time they’ve been in existence.  I got the impression she wasn’t someone who impressed easily.  She emphasized the hard work of the founding members, how they worked transparently and collaboratively with the community, and how they’ve moved mountains to get local food moving in Red Lodge.  But she also emphasized how they needed help.  Community change doesn’t happen with just a few, but it certainly can get started that way.  Her call for financial support and engagement with the RLAFPC was genuine and compelling. 

Radical Humility

In the Lentil Underground, Liz uses the term “radical humility” to describe how the Lentil Underground Renegade Farmers “refused the enduring myth of the lone ranger.”  She goes on to say that they know this myth is false because they tried to live it, and although they “managed to carve out some of the independence they were looking for,” they did not do this by themselves and were “intimately aware of their reliance on communities larger than themselves.”  AERO has and continues to be a medium to help Montanans create these communities.  AERO is here to help your community start its own food partnership council, grow your food partnership council, or aid in whatever your next steps are in growing your local food system, even it if is simply figuring out what that next step, or first step, is.

I’m traveling around Montana this summer and I hope to see many of you.  I know it’s a busy time for farms and ranches, so feel free to put me to work!  I’m serious.  I want to talk about issues affecting you and your communities: “What are the issues you face?”; “What are the solutions?”; and “How can AERO help to create this change?” As Casey Bailey said in the book, the main thing he has learned is that “you can’t do it alone.” These farmers are part of a movement and are in it to change our food system. As Liz notes at the end of the chapter, they can’t do that alone: it’s up to all of us.

“As long as more people rare moving in that direction,” Bud Barta said, “I’m happy.  I mean, that’s why we did it.” Lentil Underground, p 244.

Here are some cute lambs for your Feelings.

Here are some cute lambs for your Feelings.

Coming soon…guest post by Corrie Williamson, AERO Communications and Membership Director, the new hard-working and savvy member of the AERO team, and an AERO old soul, through and through (read more about Corrie here). Corrie will write about her visit to the Lasilla Farm on the Montana Organic Association (MOA) farm tour, and look out for my upcoming post about visiting Jess Alger’s ranch on another MOA tour!