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.
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.
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).
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.
(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.
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.
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.”