|Spring Coulee Creek|
As we wrap up our 4th year at Prairie Heritage Farm, it's time to reflect, even though it doesn't seem like we've had a chance to catch our breath yet.
Probably the biggest news is, we're expecting number two May 14th. We're going to keep it a surprise, but Willa, who is now 2 years old, insists it will be a baby sister named "Pizza."
Courtney continues to work part-time and both she and I taught online classes for a university. In a little over a week, I will be spending time at our state capital working with the legislature (no, not as a venerable public servant, but as an evil capital "L" Lobbyist for a farm organization). It will be challenging in a lot of ways, but the work pays well, and unfortunately financial matters guide our decisions more often than not. At least the work will be interesting (to say the least) and it's working for an organization that I'm a member of and believe in.
The Farm Search and the New Farm
The other major event of the year is that we now have our very own farm about 6.5 miles west of Power, which is a small community 45 miles south of where we were in Conrad, and 30 miles north of Great Falls. Our new farm is about 30 acres and resides in an area known as the Fairfield Bench. The Fairfield Bench is irrigated and sits within the Golden Triangle between Fairfield and Power. Our farm has about 26 irrigated acres and came with a wheel line for a 12-acre hay field and numerous pieces of hand irrigation line. But before I get too far into describing the place, let me back up and catch you up on our land search from earlier in the year.
The place we'd been hoping to move into last year never became available. We finally gave up on hoping for it to happen. For a brief moment, we considered moving to Courtney's Dad's place outside of Collins (about 15 miles south of Conrad). It would have been very inexpensive to lease and to buy into, but the land base wasn't set up for what we do. As Spring approached, we moved away from that idea and decided to settle into another season in Conrad, renting the house in town and commuting out to the farm.
Just as we got rolling for the season, a farm outside of Helena became available. We've always dismissed Helena as a possibility because we've wanted to farm closer to home in north-central Montana. But we began to consider the possibility. As we thought more and more about farming near Helena, the more it made sense: Helena is an underserved market, it's full of working professionals, and the farm is only 12 miles from one of Montana's larger cities. In the end, being a nice rural property surrounded by mountains outside of a thriving city, it was out of our price range.
It was in that moment of yet another frustrating outcome, that Courtney went to the internet realtor websites and stumbled across our farm. Again, I'll spare you the details (and there were plenty - it was a bumpy and wild ride), but we found a local bank - Dutton State Bank - who was willing to take a risk on us with an FSA loan guarantee and we closed on September 7th.
The farm is quite beautiful, both its landscape and the surrounding landscape. We can see the Rocky Mountain Front, the Little Belt Mountains, and the Highwood Mountains (the mountains I grew up looking at every day). The two-story 1911 farm house is in great shape and we didn't have to do a thing to it before we moved in. There are numerous outbuildings including a big red barn and a cinderblock butcher shop. It's as though this place came available just for us. With our diversified operation, every building on the farm will be utilized and used well.
This fall, we broke about 3 acres of ground for next year's veggies and planted garlic. The logical place to plant our specialty grain is in the 12-acre field that is currently in hay. But it's a young planting and will be productive for many more years. It has immediate value as a hay field, so we don't want to plow it under to plant grain. One plan was to continue to lease the field in Conrad just for the grain. In addition, we could use the Conrad farm's equipment, and give us one more year to source our own tractor, plow, and disk. Then we met one of our neighbors who has 6 acres available to lease next year. So, instead of commuting 45 miles to Conrad next year, we're going lease the 6 acres for the grain. We're a bit nervous because we'll have to take out another loan for equipment, but I think it's the right decision.
After I told a friend and MSU Extension agent in Helena that we'd purchased a farm, he asked us if we'd like to be one of five farms in an orchard project he has grant funding for. We, of course, said yes. In the spring, we'll plant numerous varieties of pears, apples, and plums. There is a lack of fruit tree information in Montana, so the project will document the successes and failures of each variety at each farm across Montana, and publish the results and recommendations after 4 or 5 years.
|Winter wheat trial|
Now, a bit about our actual 2012 growing season. In a sentence, it was rough.
We were fortunate and found two apprentices this season, our first full-time outside help. Both were great people and hard workers. Despite the extra hands, our weeds were once again out of control in the veggies. Our grains and specialty seed crops (like the milk thistle and Indian corn) dried up from the drought and we had what were essentially crop failures across the board, except for the Prairie Farro. It was tough to bring the combine out to the Sonora Heritage wheat or the Bronze barley and come back with just a few pounds off an entire acre. It was tough realizing that we won't get another opportunity for an entire year. It's hard to know how much of the failure was biological (drought, weed pressure, poor germination, etc.) and how much was cultural (poor planning, bad timing, poor farming practices). I tend to blame myself, but that is hardly useful in planning for the future and becoming a better farmer.
Despite the rough season - the weeds and bugs in the veggies - we ran a pretty successful CSA program. Our goal was to expand to 50 CSA members and we ended up with nearly 60. Counting all the full share holders and half shareholders, that amounted to close to 90 families we served fresh vegetables to. If you recall, last year we had 3 people in Helena who wanted veggies. A friend of ours met us in Great Falls and took back the other 2 shares. We planned to do that again this year, but ended up with over 30 Helena members, so we made the trip to Helena ourselves, every other week. We set up at their farmers' market and put out our whole grains (Sonora Heritage wheat, Prairie Farro, and Bronze barley). We also set up our bike-powered grain mill and offered folks fresh flour. We were basically trying to assess interest in fresh flour to determine if we should purchase a larger, stone mill. Business was slow, but interest was high. It will take a bit of education to explain to folks the benefits of heritage and ancient whole grains and fresh flour.
Our turkeys did fine. We moved them down to the new farm in a horse trailer. They seemed particularly rebellious this year, constantly flying over any fence we put up and we took an inordinate amount of time herding them in daily. I think part of the issue was they didn't really ever have a solid home base, so they never knew where they were supposed to be. Next year we're considering either putting them all under one large, moveable shelter that's fenced on all sides, or building multiple small structures that contain them, but allow them to eat the grass underneath.
Turkey butchering weekend went very well. Not only was the weather an agreeable 40 degrees, but we had a great volunteer crew of 16 and a butcher shop to work in. Our deliveries across the state went well, and we sold out. We're hesitant to raise more turkeys than the 100 we do because we have so much to figure out with their grazing system. Once we're comfortable with our system and we can effectively manage them, then we'll probably raise more turkeys.
We have our grant-supported grain cleaning equipment set up in Courtney's Dad's quonset that we hope to move to our new farm sometime this next year. In January, I successfully picked up a critical piece of cleaning equipment, a gravity table, on an online auction of surplus equipment. With the gravity table and an old 2-screen fanning mill from the 1940s, we've successfully cleaned some of our wheat and barley.
Even though the season is over, we have a few projects we're working on. Since we have our own farm and live where we work, this year we decided to keep 2 toms and 10 hens to learn how to hatch our own turkey poults. We have an incubator somebody gave us (we're trading turkeys for it) which we'll use to hatch the turkey eggs. We don't know much about any of this, but we'll learn quite a bit in the process. We've decided that we're not necessarily counting on this project supplying all the birds we will need for next year. We want, more than anything, to simply learn as much as we can without the added pressure of an expected goal.
Another project we're involved with is working with seed. A handful of vegetable growers around the state, including ourselves, have formed a steering committee to develop a seed growers group. Perhaps it'll become a co-op, or take on some other formal structure, but our ultimate goal is to develop a locally-adapted and resilient seed supply for our region. What I would love Prairie Heritage Farm to become is more of a vegetable seed grower than a vegetable fruit grower. But that will take time to determine if the market for organic vegetable seed can replace or supplement our current vegetable market (CSA, grocery store, etc.).
We received a small grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation to purchase a stone mill. We'll need to raise more money before we can purchase it, but we plan to explore that next year and get it set up in our cinderblock shop.
2013 will likely be similar to 2012, in that we'll continue with our regular CSAs and make numerous deliveries to faraway places. Of course, we're on different ground and have much to learn about our new soil and climate. We're excited about the fresh start, though, and on land that we have a long-term investment in. Here's to a prosperous 2013 and more tales of misadventures.
Jacob, Courtney, and Willa Cowgill