Twenty-five miles north of Havre, Montana and just south of the border with Alberta, Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree own 1,280 acres, or two sections. They bought the property in 2009, and on it they grow a variety of grain, pulse (legume), and oil seed crops. Here the land is wide and low, flat in all directions with only tiny, isolated, abrupt mountains creating any variance on the horizon. During the work week Anna and Doug live four hours south in Helena, where they both have full-time jobs. On weekends though Anna and Doug are at their property near Havre, and on a sunny October weekend, they were busy getting ready for the end of the growing season by disking fields, planting winter cover crops, and harvesting safflower.
Doug grew up on a farm in Ohio and as a teenager he helped with much of the farm work, and he currently works for the Montana Department of Agriculture. He had always wanted a farm of his own, and it is clear he loves his work; he seemed to glow with a quiet enthusiasm as he went about his work behind the wheel of the large, green John Deere combine, affectionately called Ernie Jr., with one of his Jack Russell Terriers by his side. Anna comes from the west— she grew up in Colorado and Oregon—and is currently the sustainability coordinator for a federal agency. Though she did not grow up farming, she has found Doug’s passion for farming contagious.
The Crabtree’s land is colorful; even at the end of the season their fields were a collage of different textures and varying shades of brown and beige. The Crabtrees grow 15 different crops, which is a contrast from the other growers in their area; for the most part, uniform wheat fields dominate the landscape for miles in each direction. This year the Crabtrees grew flax, safflower, spelt, winter wheat, bronze hulless barley, oats, black beluga lentils, and two kinds of peas plus cover crops of rye, chickling vetch, and yellow blossom sweet clover. The fields are separated by long strips of perennial sod that are not tilled. These strips are meant to serve as wildlife corridors for animals such as badgers, porcupines, and birds and as habitat for beneficial insect species.
Anna and Doug named their operation Vilicus Farm; vilicus is the Latin word for steward. To steward means to manage with care, and specifically the Crabtrees want to be good managers of the land. “There are millions of acres of land that somebody is going to farm, and I want to be one of the ones that does that in a respectful way,” Doug explained. To them this means taking care of the different wildlife that makes their property their home, nourishing the soil, and respecting the water that passes through their place. To do this they use farming methods different from those of their non-organic neighbors, for instance part of the reason for the variety is to create a five year crop rotation to help suppress weeds, discourage pests, and build soil fertility. Their management philosophy—finding alternatives to chemical use, managing the farm holistically, taking into account and working with prairie ecosystem processes—closely parallels the organic standards by the USDA, and thus they have chosen to be certified organic.
Anna and Doug are mid-scale, organic growers, an anomaly for the most part in Montana, and they voiced concerns about the future of mid-scale of production. They see a trend in agriculture: farm land in rural areas is being consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, often by larger scale operations or corporations, leaving fewer people on the land. A key ramification of this consolidation is huge farms run by people who necessarily have less contact with their land, and the plants, animals, and soils of their properties. Chemicals (synthetic, petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers) are usually employed to manage properties of this size. The Crabtrees want to see the land managed in a different way. For Anna and Doug, more producers operating appropriately scaled farms is part of the solution to the problems posed by consolidation and chemical use. “I think we’d be a lot better off if we had a lot more farmers, a lot more people in contact with the soil and crops and where food comes from,” Doug said. But for many the thought of trying to start such a farming business from scratch is daunting. The question is how can mid-scale, diversified agriculture be a viable business?
Though the barriers to beginning a farm of this size are extremely high, a large part of Anna and Doug’s motivation for becoming farmers at this scale is to prove to other young farmers that it can be done; it is difficult, but still possible. They hope to one day offer a two-year apprenticeship program for aspiring farmers. In the first year students would learn the practical side of growing specialty grain, pulse, and oil seed crops, and the second year they would write a business plan and prepare to spin-off their own farm. They have a vision for growing mid-scale, diverse organic farmers and farms across the northern plains of Montana, and this apprenticeship would be their targeted effort at accomplishing such a goal.
The Crabtrees are in a unique position. They both have full-time professional jobs in Helena and are dryland farming in Havre, which allows them to come up on weekends to farm. This off-farm income also means that they have some capital to invest in their property and machinery, capital they could not have had earlier in their lives. Even after many years of educating themselves about mid-scale organic farming and saving their money, they have had a hard time finding financing; one of the lenders they talked to denied their loan application because farming was deemed a “prohibited business” by the lender’s particular rules. This is telling. Start-up costs are high for new farmers and yields can be unpredictable due to weather, market fluctuations, and other factors; this makes financing a farm risky for some lenders. The Crabtrees eventually found financing through the Farm Security Association (FSA). Out of concern about a decline in the number of new farmers and ranchers, the 2002 Farm Bill created a program through the FSA to help new farmers with financing. This program is one of the major reasons the Crabtrees were able to begin farming. Programs like this, that support new farmers, seem to be essential to the future of family farming.
Sunday morning the Crabtrees were up at sunrise. There were only a few more weekends left in the season before the weather would demand an end to their activities, and they were eager to get on with their work. Owning and growing their own farming business at this scale is their dream and they hope someday to do it full-time, but until they can figure out how to fit everything together, it remains only a part-time occupation. They loaded up their truck with their dogs and some snacks for later and drove off to finish harvesting safflower and planting cover crop, a final day of weekend farm work before they return to their other lives in Helena.