Raising carrot sticks in a toast, community leaders on Wednesday lauded the new lease that protects the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley.
"This is beyond what would have been a dream for me," said farm director Josh Slotnick.
In front of the PEAS barn, representatives from Garden City Harvest, Missoula County Public Schools and the city of Missoula toasted to the lease of 40 years the school board approved the previous evening.
The school leases the land for $1 a year to the city of Missoula, and Garden City Harvest manages the farm of 10 acres.
"We've got to see some not just good governance, but excellent governance," Slotnick said. "We look at the entities involved, the city, the school district, the university. Who'd have thought all these three different groups with three really different missions could have come together under this big banner of, as the mayor said, making people's lives better?"
The farm is part of the University of Montana's environmental studies program, and each year, UM students help raise crops on the land up Duncan Drive.
As Mayor John Engen shared his remarks, a group of third-graders from Rattlesnake Elementary School walked across the land talking and laughing. The partnership and benefits were really about those students, he said.
"We'll see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of those little legs trundling around this farm knowing who their farmer is. (It's a) big, big deal," Engen said.
Each year, an estimated 4,000 students, parents and teachers visit the farm.
On Tuesday, the school board approved a lease after months of negotiation and with just one vote in opposition – from trustee Ann Wake. On the farm Wednesday, board chairman Joe Knapp said the place of public education cannot be underestimated in the community.
"It remains the last bastion of our social safety network. ... It's tasked now to educate not just the mind, but the heart and soul," Knapp said. "This endeavor up here is about as clear-cut an example of educating the mind, the heart, and soul as one exists in our community."
Jean Zosel, executive director of Garden City Harvest, said even though she believed the board of trustees would approve the lease, she still felt much relief the following morning. She is thrilled at the outcome and said it was a proud moment for the nonprofit.
"Thank you for making our quality of life a priority," Zosel said. "I think you guys have known all along that preserving this beloved place is a win for all Missoula, young and old, and I thank you for that."
Speakers thanked in particular Dave Harmon, a landowner and neighbor to the north of the farm, and Heidi Kendall, a former council member and current school board trustee. Zosel also credited the lawyers for hammering out the lease – the "dirty work" – and thanked Elizabeth Kaleva and Elizabeth Erickson.
Marilyn Marler, current president of the Missoula City Council, said the deal has been 16 years in the making.
Marler remembered that Slotnick started the PEAS Farm at Fort Missoula, and then that location didn't work out. The move up the Rattlesnake turned out to be wonderful for the farm, but at the time, the uprooting was stressful, she said.
"It was logistically, financially, emotionally expensive for that to happen. So thank you so much from my personal perspective to help that not happen again," Marler said. "And thank you, Josh, for all your years of working on it. It's not been a quick thing."
The beauty of the program for the school district is it has room to accommodate more children, said Superintendent Alex Apostle. According to a news release, Garden City Harvest's Farm to School program brings the schools about $50,000 a year of agricultural services at no cost to the district.
"What we're here today to celebrate is the fact that this relationship is going to continue," Apostle said.