Max Smith remembers selling leafy greens at the Missoula Winter Farmers Market last January, and the customers eyed him with incredulity as they stomped the snow off their boots.
“We had a lot of accusations that we couldn’t possibly be growing veggies in Montana last winter,” Smith said with a chuckle. “It was excitement to the level of disbelief.”
Smith and three other farmers own Missoula Grain and Vegetable Co. in Stevensville. Through the use of grant funding and hard work, they are part of a new wave of Montana farmers working to drastically lengthen the state’s short growing season.
By planting crops in the fall and, as the temperatures drop, using high tunnels, a type of hooped greenhouse, the farmers plan to feed customers in Missoula, Hamilton, Stevensville and Helena through January this year.
Instead of having to buy spinach and tatsoi grown in California and shipped to Montana grocery stores, their Community Supported Agriculture buyers and farmers market customers will have access to locally-grown organic veggies for much longer.
Missoula County has a robust number of working farms and ranchers that supply to the busy farmers markets, but the growing season here is short compared to warmer climates. The demand for local food doesn’t end in the fall, though.
“We’ve grown food for members of our farm and also six farmers markets this year, and we’re going to push the season through the end of January,” said farmer Katelyn Madden. “We’re ready to feed more Montanans the vegetables they’re craving. The quality of supermarket produce is the best thing that ever happened to us.”
The farm has taken advantage of $22,500 in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The goal is to keep farmers and ranchers working for longer, make them more competitive with out-of-state growers and also prevent soil erosion from wind by keeping crops in place.
With 15 acres, Smith and his coworkers will harvest arugula, baby kale, stir fry greens, chard and other hardy winter crops for 14 weeks throughout the winter for deliveries to their winter CSA customers. They had 37 CSA household customers last year, and this winter they’re hoping to have 150.
As the temperatures get colder, the crew gradually increases the row cover and plastic shelter protection until the plants reach a state of stasis in November. Describing last year, she said the greenhouses actually help keep the plants fresh.
“We learned so many new techniques for season extension last year,” Madden said. “I felt like a kid again, observing nature in its coldest state.''
During the winter, "the unheated greenhouses act like giant refrigerators, keeping the greens just cool enough to preserve the plant growth that occurred (in the) fall."
She said that as a result of this cold conditioning, greens last for longer periods in members’ home fridges.
"Many members reported fresh harvested spinach lasting in their crisper drawer for over a month," Madden explained.
The team includes recipes for things like Persian herb stew and spaghetti squash lasagna in their weekly newsletter to go along with the veggies.
“This saves me so much time on shopping, gets a variety of vegetables and dishes into my family's otherwise monotonous routine and is an all-around enjoyable way to support local agriculture and our local economy," said Elizabeth Williams, one of the farms’ CSA customers.
Tracy Potter-Fins, the owner of County Rail Farm in Huson, also took advantage of USDA grants, as well as a Growth Through Agriculture grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture. She and her team have added a couple months to the regular growing season using heated greenhouses. Potter-Fins said the demand for locally-grown produce is year-round, and Montana farmers could find opportunities if they put in the work and capital.
“If we had more year-round growers, the Winter Farmers Market (at the Missoula Senior Center) would probably be doing better than it does,” she said. “I think that Max and everyone at Missoula Grain and Vegetable are getting the ball rolling, which is great.”
Smith and his team have their hands full. They’ll still have to battle harsh weather and perhaps frozen ground this winter, but they feel like they’ve got the support of their community. He believes more farmers will see the benefit and begin either renting or buying high tunnel greenhouses.
“It’s allowing more growth in local farming,” he said. "I think more people will start doing this. The only limitation is will."