MOIESE - Nicole Jarvis tugs on a clump of cold earth wrapped around Jerusalem artichokes. In the distance, the clouds part on occasion with teasing glimpses of the Mission Mountains. Chickens cluck near the farmhouse. Inside it, a small boy naps.
Here on 18 acres in the Mission Valley, Jarvis, 31, and her husband, Cale Nittinger, 27, live their dream of being farmers. The couple, content to cultivate a few acres for a local market, are part of a new generation that is passionate about food.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's the most meaningful work that I think anybody can do," Jarvis said.
Farmers aren't just getting older anymore. Yes, their average age pitches higher and higher, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Montana and across the United States, farmers were on average 55 years old, according to the 2002 census of agriculture. But the USDA doesn't keep track of the age of farmers growing small gardens to sell to local markets. And interest among younger people in Montana is bubbling.
Jarvis, who graduated from the University of Montana in 2000, decided to farm after taking Josh Slotnick's PEAS classes, or Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society. The PEAS farm is a teaching farm for the UM Environmental Studies program, sending most of its production to the Missoula Food Bank. Garden City Harvest helps manage the farm and sells produce shares. PEAS courses run spring, summer and fall, and Slotnick said enrollment has been strong.
"There's a lot of interest out there from young people who are exploring this as a potential career," Slotnick said.
Classes are full at 28 or 30 pupils, and they fill up during the school year. Slotnick has taught the class since 1997 and said spring and fall semester have been full for years. Enrollment has slowed in the summer because students need jobs.
But Slotnick said the strong interest in local farming has been steady for at least a decade, and propelled by younger people, it is "charging hard" now. He said the generation of new farmers doesn't see the job as an obscure hobby but as part of a solution to problems such as global warming.
Most of his students are upperclassmen, so they're 22, 23 or 24. Slotnick figured most won't make solid career choices until they're at least a couple years older, but some of his students have taken up the pitchfork. Slotnick also has seen heightened interest in his family's farm, Clark Fork Organics.
"We used to get interns to work on our farm locally," Slotnick said. "Now, we get interest from all over the country."
So younger people want to grow local food, and consumers want to buy it. But these farmers face an enormous challenge in this region, and that's the lack of arable land. It's a problem the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition plans to meet head on, in part by finding those young farmers.
"It's a total misconception when people say nobody wants to farm anymore," said Paul Hubbard, CFAC land use program director. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
CFAC works to promote policies that support local food and farms. In 2009, the coalition plans to kick off a program to link younger, aspiring farmers and ranchers with older, retiring ones. The idea is that younger people have the desire to farm, but they don't have land. Retiring farmers, on the other hand, don't want to farm anymore, but some want their land to continue to produce food.
"Hopefully, we're establishing a program that will be able to help them get out of agriculture when they choose to retire, while also passing their land onto someone else who wants to start a farming or ranching business," Hubbard said.
The program is called Land Link Montana. It can be found online at www.landlinkmontana.org. It has a wide reach, basically from Kalispell to Plains to Hamilton to Deer Lodge, and collects information from parties to make the best matches: Does a person want to farm thousands of acres? Or a few? Does a farmer come with children who need to be close to a school? Does a rancher prefer being close to a city or far?
Younger people already are signing up. Hubbard estimated the handful of people who have joined the list are in their late 20s and early 30s and have families.
"The goal right now is to enroll as many landowners and as many farm and ranch seekers as possible," he said.
Acquiring land was a challenge for Jarvis and Nittinger. Jarvis said they searched for more than a year during the height of the market to find affordable farmland. Eventually, they found the Ploughshare Farm and bought it a couple years ago with help from family.
"We are splitting this property with my husband's parents. They've changed their retirement plans to accommodate our dream," Jarvis said.
Her husband still works for another farmer down the road to help pay the mortgage. The couple's goal is to farm their own land full time and raise their 2 1/2-year-old son there. Jarvis said their neighbors are farmers, too. Most are over 40 years old but she said some also are younger.
The younger set also is on the move in Bozeman. There, students pushed Montana State University to launch a program called Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems, said College of Agriculture Dean and Director Jeff Jacobsen. The Board of Regents approved the new major and it becomes available in January.
"There was enough critical mass of enough student interest," Jacobsen said.
The interest is apparent even in the chambers of the Missoula City Council. When the council recently considered a development in the Orchard Homes area, Max Smith described himself as "an aspiring farmer" and testified in favor of preserving arable land.
Smith, 18, said last year he didn't even want to pull quack grass from his mother's garden, a large plot outside her home in the Slant Streets neighborhood. This fall, he read a book called "Eat Here" in a class called "Community and Environment" at the University of Montana. Now, the Missoula man touts local food and said it's time for him to get his hands dirty.
"I should have been getting into this earlier," Smith said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at email@example.com.