Western Montana’s Local Farmers are Feeding Your Faces, Part 3: County Rail Farm

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Tracy and Margaret of County Rail Farm.

IMG_6941Tracy and Margaret have been farming at County Rail Farm for 5 seasons. County Rail Farm is located in Dixon, MT, in Western Montana, where the summer has been unusually dry.   These gals have two fields that are on drip irrigation, with water that comes from one of two wells. The other four fields run on overhead sprinklers (hand-line)  from the irrigation ditch. The ditch is fed from the Jocko River, and just upriver from the diversion, the Jocko is fed by a couple springs. This means they didn’t have heavy restrictions this year despite the drought conditions (many farms on the upper Jocko and elsewhere have had their ditches closed because it’s so dry). And these farmers are very, very grateful.

Tracy and Margaret of County Rail Farm.

Tracy and Margaret of County Rail Farm.

The entire property is located on 23 acres, most of which is a giant hill—only 4 acres are flat.  They farm on 1.5 acres every season, with half an acre growing only asparagus and fruit.  On six plots they grow IMG_6940food for Montanans, including: greens, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, garlic, and onions.  County Rail Farm is certified Montana Homegrown as well as certified organic by the MT Dept of Agriculture. For more information, go to their ORGANIC, HOMEGROWN: Our Methods page. Each plot spends about two seasons in production and one season in cover crop, unless it’s a new field and it spends at least 2 seasons in cover crop to build up the soil.  They also grow cherries, peaches, plums, apples, pears, chickens, and goats. The chickens travel around the farm, kicking up and building the soil, as do the goats.  County Rail Farm grows 200-300 pounds of greens per week!

IMG_6946 IMG_6947These farmers have a sweet greens cutter that cuts their greens harvesting time by 1/6! It’s great for greens that grow up (vertical)–like arugula, lettuces, mustards, spinach, etc! (It was invented by a teenager growing up on a farm who wanted to cut down harvest time!)  These two gals and one intern run the farm, with the help of the farm’s owner, Steve, who offers advice, support, and tends to the fruit trees.  County Rail Farm is located at Pommes de Terre Acres, where Jane Kile, a powerhouse behind local food movement in Western Montana, cultivated the land since the 1980’s. Jane and a handful of other farmers in the valley started a small CSA from this property, one of the first in the United States. Jane believed: “Food should feed the soul and the community,” that growing and consuming food was about more than just having something to eat.  Jane and her husband Steve grew fruit and vegetables and raised chickens at Pomme de Terre Acres. The asparagus grown here is Jane’s asparagus and has been growing for 18 years! As the next generation of farmers at Pommes de Terre Acres, the gals of County Rail Farm continue the legacy of  caring for the land and producing food that nurtures body and soul.

Tracy and Margaret live in a charming home on the property which includes a sun porch with a cozy futon surrounded by plants (including a fig tree—be still my heart!).  Interns get to stay in a cabin on the other side of the irrigation ditch, powered by a very long extension cord and no running water.  Tracy casually points out the outhouse she built herself.  I am impressed, but not surprised.  These gals have the lean look of a farming lifestyle, but I wouldn’t challenge Tracy to an arm wrestling contest—and that’s saying something (I took second place at my friends’ Flathead Lake Memorial Day Arm Wrestling Championship in 2014, and probably only took second because I messed up my shoulder at roller derby practice a couple weeks before).  These two are kind, hard-working, funny, and tough.  Like all farmers, amiright?

County Rail Farm was preparing for the weekly farmers’ market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick up (County Rail Farm is the drop off point for the Western Montana Growers Coop CSA pick up), as well as the Farm Dinner Burns St. Bistro was putting on over the weekend.  One word: cannollis. They had locally made cannollis!  I bet you didn’t know Dixon was that fancy. You’re welcome.

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Milk yer goats, heah!

I brought my best friend with me to see the farm (yes, adults have best friends). She follows County Rail on Instagram and friends of ours get produce from County Rail Farm and rave about Tracy and Margaret, so my buddy was excited to meet her new heroes.  And one day she’ll trade in her tailored slacks and oxfords for Carhartts and work boots and leave the concrete jungle to move back to Montana to farm. I was giving the hard sell. Tracy and Margaret took us to their building where they clean and sort produce for sale.  They are going through the GAP certification process through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and they are  very serious about following GAP IMG_6948rules to a T.  They are documenting everything in harvest logs: What is growing where, when and where does it go, who cleaned and sorted, quantity, where did the produce come from and where did it go… All part of GAP requirements, but also good business data as well.  This data collection and organization is Tracy’s pride and joy.  And it also gives the farmers good info for future seasons.  This farms beats with efficiency and abundance and love. You should try their food and check out their place some time.  Their Harvest Party is coming up on September 20, so mark your calendars for a Dixon trip.  Only come if you like good food, good company, and beautiful country, otherwise, you’ll be miserable.  See you there!

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Western Montana’s Local Farmers are Feeding Your Faces, Part 2: The Golden Yoke

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Connie Surber and Laura Ginsburg moved to Montana specifically to study dairy farming in Montana.  Laura, a University of Montana Environmental Studies graduate alum, wrote her graduate thesis on dairy farming in Montana.  Fast-forward to today, and these two are running their own farm in the Mission Mountain Valley, complete with dairy cows, chickens, sheep, and piglets.  This year,  these two young women will be realizing their dream of running a local ice cream business: The Golden Yoke.  And lucky for the rest of us, not only will their ice cream be a quick stop in St. Ignatius as we drive over to Flathead Lake or up to Glacier National Park, but they will be selling to grocery stores and restaurants statewide. IMG_0038 IMG_0044

The Golden Yoke dairy is different than most and they say, “that is the way we want it.” These farmers “strive to be good environmental stewards as well as great neighbors.” Golden Yoke cows will be milked seasonally, calving in the spring when nature intends. The calves will be pasture-raised and given milk to at least 90 days of age, and all the animals graze in a management intensive grazing system that moves them to a new pasture every 12 hours, and will not return to that pasture until it has had adequate rest—some resting for a full year to develop the seed bank and give it a chance to get even better.

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Connie went to ice cream school and let me tell you, that program is no joke.  She showed me the materials and the giant binder and talked about the homework. Running an ice cream shop is serious business.  Seriously delicious!  Close your eyes and imagine it. Close them. You just picked up bowl of ice cream from The Golden Yoke.  You’re sitting outside of the ice cream shop, the sun is low in the sky, the evening air is fresh, a cool breeze caresses your face.  You glance down, looking lovingly at this dessert, at generous mounds of custard-colored, creamy honey ice cream with—gasp—REAL huckleberries cascading from the top down its sides.  You deserve this.  You close your eyes and take your first bite.  You now know bliss. Did I mention they will have homemade ice cream sandwiches?  Things are going to be a whole lot squishier around here…

Also, meet their photobombing cat.

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Eat it.

Western Montana’s Local Farmers are Feeding Your Faces, Part 1: Harlequin Organic Produce

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When I spent the day at Harlequin Produce in Arlee, Montana, I met my first visitor as I went up the driveway: a little spotted white tail fawn.  It was pretty cute of course and warmed my heart a little to see it bounding across the drive. However, I figured its nearby relatives were probably a pain in the neck for the Harlequin farmers, but that also meant there was good food nearby, so…

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Peas = green manure!

Kaly Hess and her partner Brian Wirak are leasing land at Common Grounds Farm in Arlee, Montana, they’ve run Harlequin Organic Produce since 2009.  On their website, they say they are “[c]ombining age old techniques with modern technology, we focus on growing high value and high yielding crops in a manner that incorporates ecological principles, through the use of living mulches, conservation tillage, and on farm diversity…Like a harlequin cloak our fields are checkered with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.” They grow organic produce, share recipes, offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm Share, sell at the Clark Fork River Market in Missoula, sell wholesale to the Western IMG_0015Montana Growers Cooperative, and have a pretty sweet Winter Storage Stock-Up where you get 100lbs of cold storage produce for $100. I got it last year. It’s a sweet deal.

Harlequin Produce leases 40 acres, with 12 in production growing produce each season, the rest is in cover crop (growingIMG_0002 vetch, austrian winter pea, and rye). Kaly notes that they are blessed in that they have more area to rotate crops, which keeps the soil happy. They are struggling this year because water is uncertain.  It has been so dry, the possibility of growing late season crops is uncertain because of the scarce water this year.  This is the earliest season they’ve seen yet—everything is coming up about 3 weeks early.

Harlequin grows under principles of agroecology: “The choices we make from what to grow to how we farm are determined by their ability to help us reach our goal of minimizing our environmental impact while making organic farming an economically sustainable trade.” They grow beautiful and delicious produce (greens, tomatoes, squash, onions…) in home fields, greenhouses, and high tunnels.  One method of weed management is running a tractor with a pre-emergent flame to burn the weeds before the produce starts sprouting. I helped the old-fashioned way by weeding the onion fields as Kaly and I talked.  We wrapped it up to move to another part of the farm and Kaly said, “5 down, 7 to go”. The Western Montana Growers Cooperative (WMGC) is diverse in farmers and allows farmers to diversify what they produce and provides cooperative financing (some farmers sell $5K of produce and some sell $50K).

IMG_0009And they don’t do it alone, Kaly and Brian hire apprentices to help them out through the season, some stay for multiple seasons. They help out with harvesting and growing the produce, work on farm equipment and farm stand, package the CSAs, and get food to the farmers’ markets.

Farm internships and apprenticeships are a great way for people interested in farming to gain an applied learning experience in ecological farming.  Both Kaly and Brian studied farming in college (plant and soil dynamics, but not actually growing food). They didn’t start really learning how to farm until they were in the dirt growing things in the fields, learning from other long-time farmers.  And since then, they’ve been figuring out insurance options as organic farmers, how to fix tractors,  and successfully running a business, growing good food and managing a crew.

Harlequin Organic Produce has a little bit bigger operation than most sustainable farms in Montana, and Kaly explained, scaling-up for ecological farmers is a challenge.  It’s a challenge others are talking about all over. She said it would be great to connect with other mid-size farms—mid-size here being those who grow on 8-15 acres.  There aren’t too many of those in Montana, and Harlequin is connected to those sustainable Montana growers who are a helpful network and IMG_0007resource.  But the idea of a more regional network could be really useful. Farming organically and at this scale is a lot of trial and error, so being connected to similarly-situated colleagues could help with idea-sharing and resource sharing opportunities, like sharing/swapping/selling equipment.  They could discuss how other farmers build soil and manage nutrients, as well as choosing and running farm equipment.

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Farmer Kaly Hess cutting you some salad!

I left Harlequin Produce and Kaly and an intern were cutting salad for the Clark Fork River Farmers Market, and Brian and another intern were setting up the Farmers Market stand. Check out their recipes here, and then make sure you stop by the Clark Fork River Farmers Market in Missoula this weekend and support this great team.