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…
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 Montana 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 (growing 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).
And 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 resource. 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.
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.