AERO’s annual Farm Tours are an effective way to build community among Montana’s sustainable farmers and ranchers. These hands-on tours not only spur dialogue that helps farmers and ranchers network among each other, but also builds upon their leadership capacities by recognizing their outstanding contributions to Montana’s sustainable agricultural economy. Though the tours are primarily for farmers and ranchers, AERO encourages agricultural service providers, retailers, and citizens to also attend in order to expand the off-farm support network that is so critical for viable agricultural enterprises.
AERO’s 2015 Farm Tours were held in September in conjunction with the 2015 Expo and Annual Meeting.
Prairie Heritage Farm
Prairie Heritage Farm is a certified organic, diversified farm near Great Falls, Montana. They grow fresh vegetables, vegetable seed, and ancient and heritage grains (including Emmer and Einkorn). The farm is owned and operated by Jacob and Courtney Cowgill, two central Montanans returning to their roots. They believe that family farms nourish not only the people who work them, but the people they feed and communities in which they live. They believe organic agriculture, diversification and a robust local food system are good for the health of the farm, customers, community, and the environment.
The tour visited the high tunnels and low tunnels, and discussed season extension and winter growing experiments, heritage and ancient grain projects, and vegetable seed work with the Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative. Attendees walked vegetable fields to look and talk about growing systems and the national development in small-scale vegetable farming techniques and technologies.
Straw Bale Build
This tour visited the Hadley place as well as the Ryan place to examine straw bale homes both complete and under construction, to show the diversity of straw bale construction. Transplants from Juneau, Alaska, the Hadleys built a post-and-beam, straw bale infill home on the property Heather’s parents have called home for 20 years. They broke ground in July of 2015, and when the tour visited were working on their foundation with a large stack of 400 organic straw bales on site. The Hadleys described how they began with a much larger design, but having become enamored by the small building movement, scaled down the size of their home to 690 square feet. They followed the straw bale construction philosophy of Andrew Morrison of Strawbale.com and discussed that philosophy and construction details as learned from him. Attendees then traveled 6 miles down the road, where Dan Ryan offered a tour of his two straw bale houses, one complete and lived in, and one in progress, with foundation in place.
Quinn Ranch & Montana Organic Horizons Snacks
The tour explored the Quinn Ranch’s experimental orchard & vegetable garden, viewing the nine-year rotation demonstration, and the vegetable oil threshing facilities, where oil from Montana Horizons Organic Snackfood production is cleaned up and repurposed for use in the farm’s tractors. Attendees then moved on to Big Sandy for a bowl of soup at the deli and a tour of the newly opened Montana Horizons Organic Snacks processing facility. A family owned business, they are dedicated to producing nutritious and tasty organic snacks made from Kamut® brand ancient wheat. Today, Kracklin’ Kamut® is produced in the town’s previously operated log cabin bakery.
Gardens from Garbage, Westside Orchard
Gardens from Garbage grew out of a recognized need for sustainability – for the vitality of our environment and our communities. Our current food system relies heavily on transporting food grown in distant environments, which results in fuel consumption and reliance on an unsustainable system. Gardens from Garbage strives to learn and teach others how to grow food by nourishing what we have in our community and connecting with others who are doing the same. The tour explored the Westside Orchard Garden, a 2.2 acre plot where Gardens from Garbage grows, model and employs a variety of gardening methods, teaching classes for adults, mentoring kids raising their own vegetables, experimenting with new and innovative methods for growing, and hosting seminars for groups. They produce their own garden soil with bokashi composting and develop lasagna-composted gardening beds.
Created in 1987 by four organic farmers to market product from their own farms, Timeless Seeds now contracts and sources organic pulses and grains from organic farmers throughout Montana and the region. This certified organic facility cleans, processes, and packages pulses and grains for distribution throughout the United States and for export. The hallmark of Timeless Seeds has been the introduction of unique and highly nutritious specialty grains like our Black Beluga® Lentils, Purple Prairie™ Barley, and Black Kabuli™ Chickpeas. Timeless Seeds is proud to provide its customers with GMO-free and certified organic products and strives to follow the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and profits.
Eighth Wonder, Inc. and The Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project are working directly with farmers to build a sustainable economic enterprise that is rooted in the indigenous knowledge of the people. The rare heirloom rice of the Cordillera has been hand-cultivated in the high-elevation terraces of the Philippines for generations. Within the indigenous cultures, the rice is considered a precious gift from their gods; a gift that nourishes both body and spirit. The sale of Eighth Wonder® Heirloom Rice supports cultural integrity, sustainable agriculture, the preservation of globally significant high-elevation terraces, and ensures that heritage foods remain in production.
AERO’s 2011 summer farm tour series was a great success, and was organized with the support of the Montana Farmers Union, the Montana Sustainable Growers Union, the Montana Organic Association, the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and MSU Northern’s Bio-Energy Center.
This year people traveled from near and far to visit the Quinn family farm in Big Sandy and learn first-hand about organic agriculture and oilseed processing. The day was packed with information and the group had plenty of time to ask questions and share ideas with the numerous presenters.
Tour host Bob Quinn demonstrated Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) processing, and shared insights into oilseed production for on-farm use. John Theibes, a Montana State University (MSU) student and intern on the Quinn farm shared what he is learning about dry land vegetable production and trials and errors in finding appropriate varieties for north central Montana.
MSU professors Fabian Manalled and Patrick Hatfield shared some of their research on both organic agriculture and controlling noxious weeds with targeted sheep grazing, and Andre Gilles of Montana Flour and Grain reflected on the work they have done to develop markets for Montana’s organic grains. Finally, representatives from N/C Quest Inc demonstrated their emissions as fertilizer technology, and researchers from MSU Northern’s Bio Energy Center talked about how they are working with area oilseed producers on a pilot project.
The day was packed! But, we still managed to eat a delicious lunch and have time to visit one-on-one about what we were learning. Thank you to our hosts, the Quinn family, and to all of our presenters.
Groundworks & McVeda Farms
Around forty people showed up at Groundworks Farm, home of Eric and Audra Bergman, to see first-hand their integrated vegetable, herb, and pastured poultry operation west of Great Falls. The Bergmans shared what motivated them to start the farm, how they grow and market their products, and some of their successes and challenges in raising pastured layers and broilers for local markets.
The group then caravanned down the road to the McVeda family farm, where Christopher McVeda shared his lessons-learned and new strategies for raising, processing, and marketing pastured poultry.
A number of tour participants raise pastured poultry themselves, and there was lots of discussion around specific production techniques, state regulations, and how to make poultry processing cost effective. Some of the attendees traveled long distances to visit these farms, reflecting broad statewide interest in pastured poultry, and a desire to see how some farms are, and are not making this burgeoning market work. Thank you to all who came and to our tour hosts.
In another double-farm-tour-day, forty people arrived at Ploughshare Farm in Moiese to learn about this diversified vegetable and livestock operation owned and operated by Cale Nittenger and Nicole Jarvis. Participants learned about their cover cropping and rotation practices, the roles goats and chickens play on the farm, and their experimentations raising Painted Mountain Corn, a variety developed in Big Timber that is tolerant of cold and dry conditions. In addition to production specifics, Cale & Nicole shared the story of how they arrived on Ploughshare Farm, and how they market their products using the Homegrown label and as members of the Montana Sustainable Growers Union, as well as through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative.
Everyone then caravanned down the road to Dixon to visit Fialky Farm meet Patty Fialcowitz. We started by enjoying a delicious lunch sourced by farmers in the Growers Co-op and then learned about her intensive and integrated production of vegetables, fruit, cut flowers, and livestock. Tour participants had a chance to see their wood heated greenhouse as well as new hoop house, and to hear how they sell products through the Growers Co-op, in retail outlets, at farmers markets, as well as how they enjoy their bounty for home use.
A range of folks, from agricultural educators and non-profit staff to farmers and interested consumers, were engaged and interested in both farms. Thank you to our tour hosts and all of our participants.
Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch
August – Deer Lodge, Montana
In 2005 the Clark Fork Coalition (CFC) purchased this 23,000-acre ranch in the heart of the Deer Lodge Valley’s Superfund site. The ranch now supports about 140 head of cattle, has three miles of upper Clark Fork river frontage, and is one of the area’s most polluted ranches with heavy metal contamination from the closed Anaconda Smelter just upstream. The Clark Fork Coalition is working with the EPA to do remediation on the ranch, and is enhancing those efforts with sustainable agricultural practices. The CFC is “offering the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch as a learning site for exploring first-hand the challenges and opportunities that cleanup will bring to the valley’s ranchers.” During this tour, participants will learn about grazing and irrigation strategies, grass-fed beef production and direct marketing, water rights issues, and see first-hand the effects of the contamination and how the remediation is being approached. Snacks and beverages will be served, and will provide an opportunity for participants to ask in-depth questions and exchange ideas.
Farm to Table Project & Hoff Farm
September – Glendive, Montana
Farm to Table is a community development project that is building a sustainable local food system in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. Led by Dawson County Extension Agent Bruce Smith, this tour will focus on food safety issues associated with the packaging facility of their business Western Trails Food, which uses locally grown barley and beans in their products. The tour will also focus on season extensions for market gardeners using high tunnels, which Farm to Table has developed at both their community garden as well as on Alvin and Dena Hoff’s farm just outside of town. The Hoff’s grow an impressive subsistence garden, raise poultry and sheep, and have a long history of growing experimental heirloom bean varieties such as soldier beans, and are marketing them locally. Lunch will be provided on the Hoff’s beautiful farm overlooking the Yellowstone River, and this will be a great opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge from these experts.
Sabo Ranch Field Day
June 19, 2010 – Harrison, Montana
Over sixty people converged on the Sabo ranch, which is owned and operated by Mark and Jenny Sabo and their sons Riley and Kiril, and were impressed by their commitment to managing their land sustainably, and keeping land and animals healthy for future generations. Participants learned first-hand about straw bale building, off-grid living, management intensive grazing, natural genetic selection for gourmet grass-fed cattle, creating healthy soils for nutritious foods, and preparing whole foods using time-tested techniques. The Sabos offered afternoon courses about healthy, seasonal eating, and raising and slaughtering healthy family dairy animals. For more information, or to contact the Sabos, click here.
During the summer of 2009, over four hundred people attended AERO Farm Tours, which were done in partnership with numerous organizations including the Montana Organic Association, Montana Farmer’s Union, and the state Department of Agriculture.
July 22, 2009 – Big Sandy, Montana
The Quinn organic farm, owned and operated by the Robert and Ann Quinn family, is a diversified, organic cereal-legume crop operation located on over 3,000 acres of dry land in north-central Montana. Bob Quinn has been experimenting with organic systems and crop rotations for over 20 years on this 3rd generation dry land farm on the semi-arid plains. In an area of limited rainfall, Quinn has developed a system to conserve moisture and build the quality of the soil while rotating his crops to break up pest, disease and weed cycles. The operation is diverse: in addition to cereals like winter wheat, spring wheat, and Kamut brand wheat, Quinn grows legumes such as sweet clover and winter peas for green manure to fix nitrogen; edible seeds, like lentils; and alfalfa hay, which is used to suppress Canada thistle. He’s been growing oilseed crops like safflower, camelina, and sunflower to experiment with growing to meet the farm’s fuel needs.
In addition to the organizations mentioned above, the Quinn Farm tour was co-sponsored by the Montana NRCS, USDA SARE, NCAT, and the Montana Wheat & Barley Committee. It was held on the Quinn Organic Farm outside of Big Sandy. The tour agenda included a morning session, a break for lunch, followed by an afternoon session. In the morning, tour participants broke into four groups. One group was led by Montana State University (MSU) assistant professor of soil chemistry, Dr. Clain Jones. Dr. Jones educates extension agents, crop advisors, farmers, and ranchers on soil fertility and specializes in research that explores the processes controlling the availability of nutrients. He discussed the soil fertility research in organic systems that he has conducted on the Quinn farm and shared his findings. In addition, he spoke about his research on the effects of green manure crops on phosphorus availability and the addition of rock phosphate and its effects. Phosphorous is a finite, but necessary mineral and is becoming scarce in Montana soils. Dr. Jones discussed the implications for organic farming.
The second group was with MSU associate professor Dr. Perry Miller. Dr. Miller has also conducted research on the Quinn organic farm. His research focuses on the development of dry land principles for diversified cropping systems. On the tour, discussed water and nitrogen balances in green manures, weed management, and the economics of transitioning from conventional to organic farming.
MSU weed ecologist Dr. Bruce Maxwell led the third group. Dr. Maxwell researches non-chemical weed management strategies for annual and perennial weeds. He focuses on crop-weed competition, economic thresholds of weeds, and weed population dynamics. He discussed with tour participants his research, as well as general rules of thumb for weed management in the transition to organic as well as management once in an organic system.
The fourth and final group learned from tour host Bob Quinn about organic agriculture, his research in oilseed production and dry land vegetables, and cereal and legume cropping systems. Quinn has extensive knowledge both as a researcher and a farmer. Participants took home the numerous lessons Quinn has learned over the past 20 years, from effectively managing a diverse organic farm, to developing an economically successful business operation. Each session lasted about 45 minutes.
In the afternoon, Quinn took half of the participants to view and discuss his oilseed press and his goal of growing all the fuel the farm needs by using straight vegetable oil in tractors with modified engines. The other participants followed plant breeder Dave Christensen to his field of black corn, where he will discussed his breeding program and the need for highly-nutritious crops that can grow in difficult climates. For over 30 years, Christensen has been developing breeds of cold- and drought-hardy, highly nutritious corn for people farming in marginal lands. Not only has his corn been successfully grown on the dry plains of Montana, but also in harsh climates in North Korea and Siberia. Each session lasted about one hour.
Home Acres Orchard
July 7, 2009 – Stevensville, Montana
Healthy fruit trees and a diverse understory were key highlights on the Home Acres Orchard tour in Stevensville last summer. An orchard by definition is a monoculture, but Pam Clevenger and Kurt Wellborne shared their efforts to maintain a rich and diverse understory beneath and between the trees. The understory encourages a strong population of beneficial insects, which in turn helps to maintain a natural ecological balance in the orchard. Home Acres Orchard grows 18 varieties of apples, six varieties of pears, and three varieties of Asian pears. The orchard also includes several varieties of apricots and pie cherries, and four varieties of plums, as well as many plantings of berries and nuts. Wellborne and Clevenger started grafting their own trees in 1989, and now more than 2,500 trees are planted on five acres. Home Acres was Certified Organic in 1994, and maintained that status until 2006 when Clevenger and Wellborne helped start the Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union. Discussions on establishing and maintaining trees, and how to select varieties, along with insights on fertility, pollination, sustainable insect and weed management, and marketing opportunities, were all part of the tour. Wellborne also shared harvesting protocols, storage guidelines, and packaging preferences.
Sabo Ranch Field Day
June 20, 2009 – Harrison, Montana