Todd Ulizio grew up on a small vegetable farm in Connecticut, studied accounting and later, wildlife biology. His wife Rebecca studied agroecology and was teaching at a local community college when she met Todd.
“She had the theory, I had the practice,” said Todd as he explained their combined experiences. “It was a good partnering.”
During the time he spent as a wildlife biologist, Todd found that farming dovetailed with his views on conservation and land stewardship. About seven years ago, the Ulizios started Ten Lakes Farm on leased land in Eureka, MT. They developed a successful organic vegetable business and wanted to expand, but since they were unable to increase production there, they looked for other opportunities.
The Ulizios met Mike Goguen, who had 65 acres in Whitefish, MT. Mike wanted to farm, but hadn’t yet made any plans. “Long story short, we partnered with him and moved our entire operation down here to Whitefish,” said Todd. “We’ve been here at Two Bear Farm for one year.”
Todd says after growing vegetables on a farm for six years, moving to a new location that had been a horse pasture for the past 20 years was somewhat unsettling. Early-season rain proved to be one of their first challenges. “Drainage isn’t the best with clay as subsoil,” said Todd. “But as soon as things dried up, crops thrived. We didn’t have much time to amend the soil. We basically got it out of grass, put gypsum on it and planted. This year, we’ve been hauling in manure from a local dairy to improve fertility.”
Last season, the couple produced vegetables on eight acres, but they plan to farm 13 acres in 2015. “Our goal for the first year was to stay the same size so we wouldn’t have to turn anyone away,” said Todd. “We wanted to keep the customers we had from Ten Lakes, which was primarily a 150-member CSA farm. We also sell at two farmers’ markets and wholesale.”
The systems the Ulizios had developed for planting, cultivating and harvest worked well on the new farm. Right now, Todd and Rebecca are continuing work on infrastructure. They put up two 26’ x 96’ high tunnels last year, and just finished erecting two more. Soil tests taken before establishing crops, during the season and after the season helped establish baselines for soil fertility.
Montana presents some challenges for growing, Todd says. “We typically have 90 to 100 frost-free days,” he said. “There are years where we get a mild frost every month of the year. When it comes to frost-sensitive crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, it really isn’t worth growing them in our location without some kind of protective cover.”
In addition to high tunnels to extend the season, low hoops with row covers help protect fragile crops. “Everything that’s transplanted out in the field has hoops and row covering; at least in the beginning,” said Todd. “Last year, the field wasn’t clear of snow until March 31, but we were pulling crops by the middle of May.
The high tunnels allow us an early start in spring when we’re doing greens, spinach, radishes and spring onions. By the time we harvest those and distribute through the CSA, we’re at the end of May. We immediately plant tomatoes, then from the end of May through October we have tomatoes.”
Because the annual rainfall average is about 14 inches, all crops are irrigated. The farm has water rights to a stream running through the property, and that water provides overhead irrigation. Some of the high tunnels are drip irrigated from the well. “Montana is in good shape with water,” said Todd. “We’re a headwater state and have good aquifers.”
Most of the crops Todd and Rebecca had grown at their original location did well during the first year at Two Bear Farm. “The old farm and new farm are similar settings, with lower elevation and frost pockets, which is common in the Rockies,” said Todd. “We had good luck with the cole crops because they’re well-suited to cold nights.”
Two Bear Farm offers several CSA options. “We like to take them to the two farmers markets that we go to,” said Todd. “That brings more people to the market and it’s easier for us. People can also pick up shares on the farm, and there’s one distribution point for people who live further away.”
Local high school students benefit from the farm as participants in a food systems class. Topics include geographic information systems (GIS), mapping and the politics of food. In summer, Todd visits the local community college to talk about food production with nutrition classes, and gives farm tours.
“I hope the program becomes more integrated so kids can see the reality of farming,” said Todd. “It resonates more when they can come out to the farm. It’s the same with the apprentices — they all have an idea of what farming is, but they learn what it’s really like to work here for the season, and it’s risk free for them.”
The Ulizios are already planning for 2015. Since the objective of moving to a new location was to expand production, the concentration is on starting new fields and figuring out which crops will do well in various areas of the farm. “For us, it’s an ongoing process,” said Todd. “We know where we had issues and where there were excesses.”
Todd predicts the acreage under cultivation won’t increase significantly in the future. “Scaling up isn’t really feasible because of season extension,” he said. “For every bed we plant, we have to haul hoops, row covers and sand bags. It isn’t just a matter of adding more seed to the hopper to plant more acreage.”
When the growing season is over, there’s still plenty of work to do: taxes, finding new help (apprentices) organic certification work, crop planning and placing seed orders. “By late February to early March, we’re starting seeds,” said Todd. “There isn’t much of an off-season, even with a short growing season. The challenge is to stretch the revenue.”
As he looks forward to the 2015 growing season, Todd says they will probably offer 200 CSA shares. “There’s a lot of demand,” he said. “We had to turn a lot of people away. We figure it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver. We feel confident after the first year that we know the land better.”