Growing Food (and a Business!) in the Flathead

Last spring, Tawnya Rourke Kelly attended AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshop that was held in the Flathead.

Tawnya GardeningTawnya, a practicing permaculturist, currently owns and runs, “HeartStead Home & Garden LLC,” a landscape business that helps people in the Flathead design and maintain gardens with an eye towards attracting pollinators and using native and food-bearing plants.

She attended the workshop with the mindset that someday her small farm will generate enough income to scale down her landscaping business and allow her to focus on growing food to feed her community.

Like many workshop attendees struggling with the logistics and the language of the new laws, Tawnya found the seminar valuable in helping her gain a clear understanding of the breakdown of what small producers can or can’t legally sell in Montana.  What stuck out to her was that the current cottage food law appears to not allow her to have an income that matches her landscaping business.  Based on income modeling and her calculations, it would take making the leap to wholesale to bring in profits, Tawnya said, and as a one-woman enterprise, she simply can’t make that work.

Tawnya has a passion for food and feeding people, and it is obvious in the many activities and events she is involved with.  She is a co-organizer of the wildly popular Free the Seeds event, and a board member of Farmhands-Nourish the Flathead.  She is also coordinating the upcoming Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence which will take place in Hot Springs this Labor Day.  Tawnya has no trouble talking about growing things, and the networking at AERO’s workshops, events, and other garden/farm-centered gatherings is very valuable, she says.

hoophouseTawnya’s challenge, which is not an uncommon one, is getting locals and farmers interested and involved in classes or workshops. “Farmers are super busy for not a ton of income, have families, and don’t want to overextend themselves,” she told us.  Making classes appealing from a time-management and profit-increase level will be the most effective, in her opinion.  

That way, farmers will see the benefit of making time to table veggies

Tawnya, along with Purple Frog Gardens owner Pam Gerwe and staff at Farmhands, were part of the team in the Kalispell area that asked AERO to bring the workshop to the Flathead.  When workshops were planned in Bozeman, Billings, Great, Falls, and Arlee, Tawnya and other movers and shakers helped bring the workshop to more folks. Indeed, many attendees have responded that the various location options throughout Montana made attending feasible.  Often, trainings and workshops for beginning farmers and ranchers are based in one part of the state, and the travel can be prohibitive.  Like others, Tawnya is hoping for a follow-up class with further clarifications for some of the cottage food laws, as well as ways to grow markets and buyers so that small-scale production can be feasible for business-women and producers like her.

We have great news for Tawnya and everyone; just this month AERO received $50,000 funding from the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center to hold another workshop series to help Montanans better understand the state’s updated food policies and grow their farm and food businesses.*

For Tawnya, making her passion for growing food and feeding people a financially feasible option is a great priority. We wish her the best of luck in this admirable endeavor!

*We will hold the next workshop series in the fall/winter of 2017.   Last spring, over 100 folks attended the workshop series.  Feedback from that first round emphasized the value of examining concrete examples of the nitty gritty aspects of the laws, as well as connecting folks with other brainstormers, entrepreneurs and local health officials.  AERO looks forward to making more of those connections, and hopes you’ll help us shape those workshops by answering a few short questions, here.


Call for Work Party Proposals!

Dear Friends of AERO and Food and Ag Task Force Members,

Do you have a food, farm, or agricultural project you want to see completed while educating and building community? Let us help!

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Working together on the straw bale house build!

Last summer, AERO had the unique opportunity to help some of our members make a long-standing dream a reality. In July, we gathered together in Floweree, Montana, for a  weekend of learning and building to raise a strawbale house for AERO members Elsie and Russ. We gathered again this fall in Big Sandy on Bob Quinn’s farm to harvest Dave Christensen’s beautiful painted mountain corn and learn about its unique properties and seed history. At both of these events, we loved the chance to get our hands a little dirty, learn new skills, eat and camp together, and do something tangible for our members and our community.

This spring, the Food and Agriculture Task Force plans to gather for an in-person meeting that combines the discussion and goal setting of the Task Force with a work-party that completes or contributes to a project in need of helping hands. If you or someone you know have such a project, send us a quick proposal, and we’ll consider your site.

Here’s what we’re looking for:

1) A farming, food, or agriculture based project that can provide work for and host up to 40 volunteers for a one to two day period (including sites for tents and camping).

2) A host site that can provide the tools, materials, and basic essential training for volunteers. (AERO cannot provide funds for materials, but will help feed and transport volunteers.)

3) Appropriate work for a variety of skill levels.  

4) A site with a project date that falls between April 20 and June 30.

Examples might include: A barn-raising or other basic construction; planting or harvesting; field-clearing or soil preparation; farm site/structure maintenance – or surprise us!

If you are interested, please write to with “WORK PARTY” as your subject line and a short description of your proposed project, your location, an outline of what’s needed, and your capacity to host volunteers.

Proposals are due by March 25. The Task Force Chairs, Erin Janoso and Caroline Stephens, with staff support, will select a project by March 31st.

We look forward to hearing from you!

~ Your AERO Team


Work party harvesting Painted Mountain corn in Big Sandy with Dave Christensen