When I first visited my friends Margaret and Tracy on their (then) new farm in the mountains of Western Montana I was downright charmed by their life there. Margaret picked me and my dusty pack up from the greyhound station in Missoula and showed me around town a bit. She was excited. She’d just stopped working her job in town and her and Tracy were full-time farming.
It was a steep climb from town to their farm, County Rail. About an hour past some sprawling gas stations, through a reservation, we turned left across from the railroad tracks and the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge.
Or at least that’s how I remember it.
I met Margaret in Portland. Margaret met Tracy in New York. Then I met Tracy in New York and then there we all were sharing songs and stories in the Rockies.
They started County Rail shortly after relocating to Montana. Now, a short (or long) two years later my friends have a budding business. I got the chance to talk with them last week about how it all began.
To begin, It was a lucky personal connection. They knew they wanted to farm, but didn’t yet have the land. Tracy was visiting an old friend who told her about the property. Not knowing whether the land would be available or how much it would cost, Margaret and Tracy decided to pursue this tip and contacted the landowner, Steve Dagger. It turned out to be a good gamble.
Steve’s wife, Jane Kile had been a part of the beginnings of Montana’s local agriculture movement. Jane started one of the first CSAs in Montana in 1983, Dixon Partnership Farm, when the Community Supported Agriculture model was just beginning to surface nationwide. Jane and Steve helped found The Western Montana Growers Cooperative in 2003. This initiative organized the agricultural products of the area, allowing small farms to sell directly to one source, who in turn market to restaurants, grocery stores and farm-to-school projects.
Western Montana lost Jane to cancer in January of 2010. After her passing, Steve wanted to preserve her vision of providing fresh food to the local community. He continued to use part of the property, but was looking for a farmer (or two) to continue the Pommes de Terres legacy.
The lease agreement Margaret and Tracy have with Steve is what could be called a dream scenario. The monthly rent on the property is $550. This includes: Housing, Rental of the 3 acres they have tilled, in addition to some pasture and Use of all Equipment and Structures (barn, tractors, hoses, drip tape, etc.)
In this way, Steve is much like an unofficial land trust. His profit is not tangible, but perhaps more profitable than any sum of money.
“He’s interested in the integrity of the land,” said Tracy. “He just wants people around who are going to take care of it.”
This low rent has allowed Margaret and Tracy to move forward with their farm with more ease than if they were paying a heavy land access fee. Sustainable farming is expensive without the land question.
They have to pay for seed, irrigation needs, market fees, pest control and frost protection needs among many other unseen expenses. They are also certified organic, which comes with its own price tag.
To be able to put that organic sticker on produce, farmers have to do more than just use organic practices. The application, inspection and record keeping expenses for organic certification are in the thousands. This is a huge percentage for small farms like County Rail. The farm grows food on about 3 acres.
Again, though, these farmers have a lucky break. The Montana Department of Agriculture offers an incentive program for farmers growing organically. They refund a large portion of these fees.
The pair also mentioned grants given by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS grants help farmers with infrastructure needs like season extending high tunnels, fences, or natural barriers to separate organic growers from neighboring farms that use chemicals.
Programs like this, and land stewards like Steve help small farms make it in a world that fiscally favors the “go big or go home” mentality. There’s a bit of a war going on between those who think programs like this are important and those who don’t.
These programs, embedded in legislation like the Farm Bill (the most recent which expired in the fall of 2012), are essential for small farmers like Margaret and Tracy. Without these small farms, the American public gets more and more distanced from their food source, and less and less secure in the safety of their food.
This story is a strong reminder of why transferring land from retiring farmers to new farmers is so crucial, so that our food does not get entirely turned over to big business.
Good small farms keep the land in production, pay attention to soil health, properly rotate crops, cover crop . . . so that the land will continue to produce fresh healthy food.
Farming is cumulative. That’s why it’s so important to support the soil-friendly growers that are producing food now, and also to cultivate a relationship with the next generation.
Small farms like County Rail are sprouting up everywhere. Let’s help them grow.
This is a modified version of my land access profile on County Rail Farm. You can find it here.