It's strange, in a way, to start writing about this place and our work here just as we begin to understand how easily all of it could be lost. Maybe we should start with how we found the place, began building soil even in the cold of winter, how we put up fences in lightening storms, dug garden beds in soaking rains, shoveled manure in the snow. But the swift current of starting-up can leave little time for writing, and at some point we have to just start with where we stand. We'll return to those other parts later: swarm season and the night of thirty-thousand bees; hundreds of seedlings in the kitchen. Right now, the story starts with the tension, the knowledge that we could lose it all, take away from all this nothing but the first-year harvest and the stories. Where we stand, two river benches up from the channels of the Bitterroot River seems like a safe distance from dangerous waters. But, as we're starting to learn, floods aren't the only dangers to home and farmland.
This is a place we couldn't help but fall for: the long gravel drive lined with black walnut trees climbs a slight hill that is the highest of the ancient river terraces. Up there, what we think of as the second river-bench up, is the old orchard, surrounded by windbreaks of spruce, aspen, ponderosa, and wide basswood trees that have hummed all summer with bees. The barns and buildings hold a quiet history, some of which we've incorporated into our own home and life. We moved stacks of wood in the barn, some of which, after exposing the bright wood underlayers with the planer, we joined and built into our kitchen table. Behind the stacks we found the old milking stanchion, decades out of use but still showing wear-marks from the shuffling hooves and rubbing necks of generations of milk cows.
From the top-of-the-bench front pasture, which we have opened, turned, and grown into a lush garden, we can see down across a few fields to the cottonwood grove along the river where our friends got married this summer. Beyond the river, forested hills rise into wilder edge where we go sometimes to run.
You can't dig in this deep and not fall in love, not want to kneel down on this garden soil and pledge to the black earth some lasting bond--call cottonwood, elm, and walnut all to witness, a promise to stay and to nurture this place.
But as we stand now, though the river is running low behind the cottonwoods in its end of summer trickle, we feel the creeping rise of a different sort of flood: the simple but flint-hard realities of ownership, power, market-value of land that are stacked against us. All of the work and all of the future we'd hoped for on this spot could be swept away. There is a flood of anger and sadness inside of us: emotions that defies the 200-year floodplain and comes right up into the farm we are making home.
Yesterday, we sat at our barnboard table and talked with a neighbor about the real expense of land here. In our Target Range neighborhood, the three acre parcel we have begun to grow food on is valued at close to $300,000. To stay on our property, to remain working on our farm, we would have to be able to live here. When we agreed to this trial year arrangement to farm and grow food here, with the possibility of continuing long term, our good-faith agreement included the possiblity to build and live on the land. Our understanding, from the landowner, was that eventually we could build an additional permanent home on the property and that in the meantime, we could put up an alternative structure like a yurt without any need for formal permits. It turns out to be so much more complicated--we all should have dug deeper into the details, rather than trusting in word-of-mouth assurances.
This week, we spent hours on the phone with the county, talking about this next step that was central to our growing our farm. The shocking news was that this would mean subdividing the property, paying for permiting and land survey. It turns out that it's really expensive, nearly five times the investment of our entire first year farming operation, which has been close to $10,000. And that's just for the possibility to stay on the farm and build a home. We are grateful that the landowner we work with values the food-growing potential of this land so much that she is seeking ways to have us be able to stay without needing to purchase the land outright at that value--but we also have to be mindful of the investment she made in her original purchase.
That same neighbor pointed out to us that if we wanted to make our whole living solely from farming, we'd be better off 20 or 30 or 100 miles away, where we could by much more land for much less.
In our area, there is a lot of talk about preserving farmland and the space to grow food. There should be: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on this planet, all needing to be fed. Much of the food consumed in Missoula comes from outside Western Montana despite the region's agricultural history and capacity to grow food. But it's access to land that's the tricky bit to figure out, for people wanting to grow and supply more. Even though farm land is actively being preserved by organizations we support (CFAC, for example), much of that preservation does not include a pathway to land access or security for small farmers.
In realizing we could lose all of this land, and not be able to afford new land or another option that gives us security, we have learned the following:
What is the value of land? How do we value food produced, farm events, neighbors bringing gifts of vegetables, seeds, stories?
What shall be done with the two feet of topsoil we dug through when we put in the garden posts? All over this valley, that topsoil is paved over, turned to nothing more than lawns and driveways, every day. What's left open is often nothing more than horse pasture. Here's our chance to impact the security of the regional food supply, the chance to step up and show that we do value sustainability, and the ability of this region, this town, this valley to feed itself. But what can do about it? How do we keep this land in food production?
It's an old equation, turning land into money. Those of us with neither can end up just stuck, just waiting, or unable to live this dream of farming. And yet, we are the ones who are willing, who are able, to make that land into something else--not money, but food. Food that nourishes us all daily, the food that tumbles from plant to harvest basket to plate--seemingly like magic. But not just magic--it's the nights in early spring when we shoveled manure onto the beds under the light of the moon, sand the clouds dropping dregs of snow. The magic started with hours of shoveling beds, to deepen the topsoil by just a few more inches. This allows more space for growing roots, making that landing of seeds to earth and the transition of growing, living, and dreaming, just a little softer and more welcoming.
November 5, 2013 Update: After a lot of thinking and decision about our land, we wanted to post an update for all of you that have followed and written comments of support. Here's the latest about our loss of farmland, and what's in store for the future.
Written by Mary Bricker and Noah Jackson