Homestead Organics Farm sits on the rich soil of the former Bitterroot River bottom just outside Hamilton, MT. It is a busy place with innovative ideas and many projects in place. Laura Garber and Henry Wuensche have farmed this land for a decade. Along with their two teen-aged children they live, work, grow and not only imagine change, but create it, at their small organic farm. They have no employees, and farm between two and two and a half of their 14 acres. They operate a stand on the premises and have booths at the Hamilton and Missoula Farm Markets as well as spring and fall CSA programs.
Though Homestead Organics Farm is Certified Organic, Garber shared her thoughts on this expensive label. She says the farm maintains its organic certification to encourage and support other, larger farms in Montana to examine their practices and lessen their negative impact on the earth. “Certified Organic is a band-aid, but it’s the only band-aid we have at the moment,” Garber explained. “We need to, as a community of farmers, keep moving forward with improving how we treat the earth.” She suggests that the answer lies in small scale food systems. Ultimately, both local and organic are of the utmost importance to growers concerned with treading lightly on the planet. With this in mind, Homestead Organics does what they can to practice what they preach with a tremendous amount of community outreach, providing opportunities for children and CSA members to learn the value of fresh, organic and local food. In the past, they have also opened their farm to many volunteers through Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) to share their skill and knowledge. Garber says its rewarding but time consuming to train volunteers and ensure they’re getting a valuable and enjoyable experience. When the farm has hosted “Woofers”, she’s found the best length of time for them to stay is between three and five weeks. This gives volunteers a well-rounded experience in a reasonable amount of time.
Programs for children on the farm are abundant. The Youth Roots Program and Farm Camp give children the chance to experience fresh food and tending their own garden. In partnership with the Missoula YWCA, they host the GUTS (Girls Using Their Strength) program, which allows urban middle school girls to actually stay on the farm for several days each year and experience a taste of rural life. They also host school field trips, giving walking and tasting tours to the students.
Garber’s and Wuensche’s CSA has some unique features. Their fees are on a sliding scale basis and they offer many different sized boxes to accommodate different sized families. Paying more doesn’t mean getting more. Each year they offer a $1,000 “farm support share”, not really expecting it to be purchased. Yet happily, every year, it is. This offsets the cost for all the rest of the members. Garber is a believer in the idea that if you give people the opportunity to do what’s right for the community, they will do it. As she puts it, “If it’s community supported agriculture, and they’re supporting us, we should be supporting each other as well.” The farm also provides weekly recipes and ideas for using the produce that’s in the box that week, and teaches members how to prepare their produce. There are potluck festivals that allow members to socialize and enjoy the land. They don’t advertise their thriving CSA. Word of mouth and being visible from a busy road bring them plenty of members.
Besides growing an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables for their members and the market, Homestead Organics is doing something unusual. They’re growing their own seeds. The farm is part of Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative. The members, other growers, each grow different varieties that will cross-polinate with each other, allowing everyone to have a large variety of seeds to use on their farms. Garber and Wuensche grow beets, carrots, onions and squash, among other things, specifically to harvest the seed. This is a different process than growing for consumption, presenting an interesting change of pace. Garber highly recommends this to anyone who’s at all interested. Garber said, “I find it intellectually stimulating in a way that everyday farming is not.” All the seeds from Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative are Montana-grown. The cooperative members work towards adapting the seeds specifically for their region. Growing seed on the farm, then turning that seed into produce for local families takes the local food system to a new level.