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Western Montana Growers Go Beyond Organics & Get Local

 
  Luci Brieger shovels soil at her Lifeline Farms in the Bitterroot Valley. Photos by Chris Lombardi.

When Lifeline Farms began growing and selling its natural produce from the Bitterroot Valley 25 years ago, “organic” had a slightly different connotation.

“We took our crate of food to Safeway, we had all our letters saying it was organic, and we said, ‘This is organic, do you want it? The managers looked at it and said, ‘Oh, it’s organic? Well, we’ll take it anyway,’” says Luci Brieger, who with her husband Steve Elliott runs the produce portion of Lifeline Farms, one of the oldest organic farms in Montana.

Since those early days, Brieger and Elliott have seen organics go from obscurity to a mainstream marketing boon. And now, many organic farmers, including Brieger and Elliott, feel that organic programs have lost touch with their roots in small farms and close communities by embracing corporations that ship their produce all over the world.

In that spirit, 12 Missoula-area organic farms have formed a group that will offer an alternative to the USDA organic certification — a “Homegrown” label focusing more on growing and selling food locally. All of the member farms will be within 150 miles of their markets. To join the Western Montana Sustainable Growers Union members will pledge to grow naturally, protect air and water, maintain fair labor practices and, most importantly, to sell and buy in their communities. New members will get a visit from an established farmer to help get them started. In short, the group will be based on community and close relationships.

“Our organization feels like organic certification makes a lot of sense for growers who live at a distance from their customers. For those growers the only way customers can be assured that their food was grown the way it was supposed to be grown is to have an impartial third party do inspections. But when the grower and the customer are close together, there can be a trusting relationship. The customer can look the farmer in the eye and ask how the produce was grown,” said Josh Slotnick who heads Garden City Harvest, a Missoula community gardening program, and helped organize the Growers Union. “We’re a part of Missoula and all of our behavior will reflect our loyalty, and our desire to see Missoula become a better place.”

 
  Lettuce seedlings in the Lifeline greenhouse.

The movement toward marketing local foods, as opposed to just organically certified foods, is a national trend, said Lynn Byczynski, editor and publisher of Growing for Market, a national magazine dedicated to farmers’ markets.

“What they (the Growers Union) are doing there is not uncommon. There are groups like this bubbling up all over the place in response to the corporate takeover of organics,” she said.

The Growers Union hopes that close relationships between customers and their food growers will eliminate the need for third-party regulation and the baggage that comes with it. Many of the farms will drop the USDA approved Montana Organic Certification altogether.

The intimacy of small-scale organics is readily apparent on Lifeline Farms just outside of Victor, Montana. There are no expansive fields planted to single crops. The family-operated farm grows a head-spinning number of vegetables, herbs and bedding plants on just eight acres and two small greenhouses. The other half of Lifeline Farms, an organic beef and dairy farm run by Ernie Harvey, is just a few fields away.

For Lifeline, adjusting to a runaway organics market has meant downsizing. It began with 80 acres of organic crops tended by numerous employees and interns and then shipped to organic-friendly markets all over the country, where it competed with large-scale farms and organic co-ops. But by about 1992, Elliott said, they realized that it was as economical to sell their food locally, even if they couldn’t get organic prices all the time. So they reinvented their farm to match local demand, scaling back to a more manageable acreage and focusing on vegetables that had a market locally. Slowly national awareness of organic food grew and local demand began to rise. Markets like the Good Food Store began specializing in naturally grown foods and educated shoppers about the benefits of organics. Today Lifeline Farms sells to five markets in the Missoula area, and sometimes ships as far as Bozeman, but it no longer has to chase organic demand.

By selling locally Lifeline is bucking a national trend: The average produce on a supermarket shelf traveled 1,500 miles to get there, and that’s only counting food grown in the U.S. About 90 percent of produce bought in Montana is grown out of state. Selling locally saves fuel and keeps produce fresher. A key part of the “Homegrown” lifestyle is farmers buying locally as much as they sell to keep money in the community and Brieger and Elliott rarely look outside the valley for their farming needs. They use refuse from the dairy cows, along with manure from neighboring farms and compost to make their fertilizer and grow hay for the sheep.

Brieger and Elliot’s fields are divided into small patches draped on a gentle hillside, each a different shade of green or brown. Vegetables are nutritionally demanding on soils so they rotate their crops and rest their plots with alfalfa and ground covers, which replenish the bed’s nutrients and protect against erosion. The variety of plants and chemical-free treatment promote bio-diversity. Lettuce, potatoes, beets and bedding plants are their staple crops. In a pen across from the gardens, spindly-legged lambs romp under the protective gaze of a guard llama. Lifeline raises around 30 organic lambs for market each year.

The organic lifestyle extends past gardening into everyday life for Brieger, Elliott and their three children. They run Sustainable Systems bio-diesel in their tractor and Mercedes station wagon. Elliott hopes to start making his own diesel soon. Solar panels power their home and on sunny days feed back into the grid and they use a composting outhouse in the summer to save water. Their creek-fed pond is as good for irrigation as it is for winter hockey games.

 
 

The abundance of life on such a small farm creates the feeling of closeness to food that the small farmers feel is absent with corporate organics today. Brieger said when small farms like Lifeline pushed for organic programs in the state, they assumed that it would always be about local farming.

“What we didn’t put in, in the very beginning, is that it’s all about community,” Brieger said. “So now you can go into the Good Food Store in January and find organically certified grapes, because they are shipped in from South America.”

Disillusionment with organic programs is common among small farmers, Byczynski said.

“A lot of the people who are selling locally now started out with organics, back when organic was synonymous with local. So now with organics going corporate, local farmers are left looking for ways to distinguish themselves,” Byczynski said. She points to the rapid growth in farmers’ markets, which nearly doubled in number over the last decade, as well as new national certification programs like Certified Naturally Grown, as evidence of a shift by small farms toward marketing locally.

Finding a market shouldn’t be a problem in Western Montana. Missoula grocers say the demand for fresh, local organics is huge. But farmers distancing themselves from the familiar “organic” branding could make marketing tricky for grocery stores.

“It’s hard enough to tell people that things are organic,” said Rob Korman, owner and produce manager of the Orange Street Food Farm in Missoula. “It’s rare, but there are some skeptics out there who think we have organic stickers in the back that we just slap onto everything.”

Korman said his store has worked with local farmers to build up an organic section and it may take time to build up trust for a new brand. Still, he said he will continue to support local farmers and give them the same prices he always has, equivalent to what he would pay for California produce, including the shipping fee.

Layne Rolston of the Good Food Store said the store will need to present the produce in way that makes it clear that growers are still practicing natural growing.

“The last thing they want to do is have their customers think they are in any way shirking the organic standards set out by the USDA,” Rolston said.

The Growers Union plans to display its produce with brochures and signs that will list contact information for the farms so customers can find out about the produce. They will also hold open-farm days where visitors can see how things are done firsthand.

“They are going beyond organic to local and sustainable,” Rolston said. “I think it has kind of united our local growers in a way that will be beneficial for getting local produce out to customers.”

For Brieger, the most important thing the Growers Union can do is restore the values that have always been a part of her farm and her family — values that may have been lost in all the organic hype.

“It has always been about values for us, always,” she said. “Local foods are hip, they are also very essential.”

About Tad Sooter

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2 comments

  1. It would be nice to find a list of the stores that participate in locally grown food like this.

  2. I recently attended a Seeley Lake Community Council meeting. Landuse planning is being drafted at this time. There was apparently not even one person on the council who has the knowledge to represent the interests of agriculture and its role in community economies. It seems to me that, with little or no profit in ranching these days, some small farms such as organics could perhaps be more profitable than standard ranches. I wonder whether the soils and climate in the Clearwater River drainage are appropriate for those types of farms. Please advise. If it is actually appropriate for that area, perhaps someone from the Homegrown program could offer to make a presentation to the council about alternative agriculture that could help agricultural families and communities in the area.