From seed-saving techniques to cover crop rotation to weed management to farming as a nonprofit, a group of aspiring agricultural producers got an in-depth look at how to operate a successful farm Wednesday afternoon.
The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula County hosted one of its series of Farmer Field Days at the River Road Community Garden and Neighborhood Farm, which is one of four urban farms managed by Garden City Harvest. Established in 1996, River Road is a 3.5-acre farm that includes 55 community garden plots and a larger operation that offers 15 winter community-supported agriculture shares and 64 summer CSA shares, and raises 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce annually for the Poverello Center.
Because many farmers are considering going nonprofit, farm manager Greg Price talked about the unique benefits and drawbacks of doing so, and other challenges that go along with it.
A decade ago, Garden City Harvest operated on about $100,000 annually, but that has grown $650,000. Price said that’s due not only to a combination of hard work and long hours by underpaid staff and volunteers, but also the local food revolution seen in the county.
“I worked for six years making $10 an hour working 40 hours a week and only getting paid for 25,” he recalled. “So I’m not going to apologize for the success that we’re having now. We’ve earned our right in the market that we’ve created.”
The CSA program – in which people pay a seasonal fee up front and come to the farm every week to pick up bags of fresh produce – has been a big hit in Missoula. The summer program provides about 400 to 450 pounds of food for $500, and the winter program, which offers food like freezer corn and pickling cucumbers in the fall that can be stored for the colder months, has also drawn a lot of interest.
However, since other small farmers in the area have started CSA programs, Price has found that consumers now have more choices.
“Ten years ago we sold out our CSAs in a month,” he said. “Now, we have to do ads and outreach, and we didn’t sell out all of our CSAs this year. So that’s a $3,000 hole in my budget.”
The community gardening aspect has also been a huge attraction across Missoula.
“There’s a lot of people renting here, and people don’t have yards or space to do their own community gardens,” Price explained. “And as Missoula’s population increases, we’re doing a lot more vertical building. So community gardens offer a great opportunity. (People) have access to tools, access to soil and access to knowledge. It’s a great way to share water and share responsibilities.”
Price said that early on, Garden City Harvest decided River Road wouldn't compete with other farmers at local markets because it has an administration and name recognition that other growers don’t have access to. He also doesn’t believe in deliveries.
“I really believe in people coming here to the farm and being here and seeing what we’re all about and slowing down for a little bit,” he said. “The heart of the model is to connect producers with consumers.”
River Road sells about half its food to provide for 30 percent of its organizational budget, and it donates the other half. It also offers a number of educational and volunteer programs.
“(Garden City Harvest's) mission breaks down into a couple different things,” Price said. “Education, demonstrations of sustainable farming and we also provide an opportunity for personal refuge in whatever form that takes. The PEAS Farm has several therapy programs for youth.”
Dave Victor, the field operations manager at River Road, also gave a talk on the unique seed-saving techniques he and Price use to control the health and productivity of their 140 varieties of nearly 30 different crops.
“It’s the right and responsibility of every vegetable producer to save seeds,” he said. “There’s varieties being lost all the time. National Geographic had a cool article a while back about all the varieties we’ve lost since the 1950s. For example, there used to be more than 50 varieties of cabbage, and now we’re down to about 15. There’s varieties being lost all the time.”
Victor said that if farmers save the seeds of 20 plants from every crop, they are preserving a very good amount of genetic diversity rather than just plucking seeds from one or two plants. If a farmer has a careful eye, he or she can save the seeds from the healthiest, hardiest and most productive plants and produce generations that are each better than the last.
“Our food system is probably better off if we have more control over our seeds,” he said.
The Farmer Field Days are sponsored by the CFAC in order to connect interns and people thinking about starting their own farms with veteran agricultural producers who are experts in a particular field. The next one will be Sept. 16 at County Rail Farm in Dixon. For more information visit missoulacfac.org.