Next year, Gillian Thornton of Thunder Road Farm in Arlee hopes to have a “u-pick” site where people can harvest some of the many variety of raspberries and blackberries planted recently near the farm's scenic cow pastures.
“U-pick is such a great way of bringing the community aspect to the farm in a way that cattle ranching can’t do,” she said.
“And when we set up to create this farm, in addition to wanting to produce really good quality food for people and make it accessible to people, we also want to have that community aspect ingrained in."
Thornton and her partner, Bryce Andrews, were recently awarded a roughly $5,000 Field Tested Mini-Grant from the nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula.
The money allowed them to buy 975 cold-hardy plants, including 18 varieties of raspberries and a few blackberries. They were also able to purchase irrigation tubing, trellis materials, an automatic timer and an irrigation filter station.
Thornton and Andrews couldn’t find a lot of information about what types of raspberries perform best in western Montana’s climate.
“We basically realized that was a major lack of information,” she said. “We chose 18 different varieties. We have two gold raspberries, one black raspberry and one purple raspberry and then four varieties of blackberries.”
When they find out which varieties thrive best, they’ll plant out the rest of the acre plot and report on their methods, productivity and yield. They’ll also host friends and family for taste-testing.
Jenny Zaso, the communications and data manager for the coalition, said the grants have two purposes.
“The program not only awards Montana-based farmers the funding necessary to buy and test new tools, it also requires the farmer to report the impact that new equipment had on the efficiency and yields at their farm to be shared publicly with other farmers through written reports, videos and podcasts,” she said.
This year, the coalition gave out $100,000 worth of the grants to 27 different Montana farms.
Thornton said it would have been impossible to start an experimental plot of raspberries without the money.
“Establishing a new farm can be a significant financial undertaking,” she said. “The Field Tested Mini-Grant allows us to take the leap without feeling like we’re in over our heads. We’ve been so grateful to the farmers and ranchers who have shared their knowledge and expertise with us as we work to start our operation, and we are happy to pay it forward by reporting on our own experiences and findings through this program.”
The Western Ag Research Center at Montana State University will also provide technical assistance to help grant awardees develop better data collection methods.
“This year we’ve awarded mini-grants to farmers across a wider geographic area and to farmers growing more diverse types of specialty crops,” said Shay Farmer, the coalition’s programs and finance director. “I’ve been doing food system work in the state for almost 10 years, and there were a lot of new farms growing food and contributing to their micro food system, or the craft brew or winery markets."
The grants help newer growers access alternative funding in order to get more established while also supporting a peer dialogue between farmers looking to grow similar things, Farmer said.
The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition was awarded the money for the project from the Montana Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Management Program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of specialty crops is used to qualify applicants and includes farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops for sale to local markets and directly to Montanans.
Thornton and Andrews have a conservation easement on their 150-acre property. They've decided to plant native plants on two acres and let it return to the wild in exchange for closing off the raspberry patch with electric fencing to keep out bears.
"Everything we do will aim to improve the ecological integrity of this land," she said.