All winter, skiers atop Big Mountain are treated to a truth that becomes clear only from nearly 3,000 feet above the valley floor. Gazing out from the summit, a rich agricultural past reveals itself in the grids that cover the landscape.
While development is swallowing up many of the Flathead’s remaining agriculture tracts, a small group of local farmers are aiming to bring farming back to the local level and establish a food system that allows Flathead residents to have a say in how their food is produced.
They are doing it with hoes, tractors and sweat — and an innovative way of connecting consumers with their produce.
One of the economic pillars of small local farms is the CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is essentially an economic transaction that establishes a relationship between farmer and consumer.
A customer will pay a large sum up front during the portion of the year that a farmer incurs the vast majority of expenses buying seed and equipment for the upcoming growing season, usually around February and March in Northwest Montana. It allows farmers to use cash rather than loans to finance a growing season and keep prices down and more money in their own pocket. For the duration of the growing season, the customer gets a share of the fruits and vegetables from the farm — typically from about mid-May to October.
The following is a look at local farms offering Community Supported Agriculture programs.
Purple Frog Gardens
Just southwest of Whitefish sits the 4r cultivated acres upon which Pam Gerwe and her husband grow produce and send it out to their customers, both via CSA and local farmers markets.
They have been living on the property near Lost Coon and Blanchard Lake since 1991. “It just seemed like an honest way to make a living,” Gerwe said.
The host volunteer days each Wednesday where folks can come out and work at the farm in exchange for produce.
Gerwe works to put products grown across the valley in the CSA shares, and customers can look forward to honey from the Great Northern Honey Company and an assortment of fruit including cherries, peaches, pears and plums from orchards farther south in the valley. She said they do cap the number of CSA shares they sell, but historically they don’t sell out.
“If you are interested in food and knowing who grows your food or you like the open space here, then encouraging agricultural land is great,” Gerwe said.
Purple Frog Gardens also offers an 11-week flower CSA for $135 where customers can get a weekly, locally-sourced bouquet.
Location: 170 Blanchard Lake Drive, Whitefish
Duration: 20 weeks
Contents: Vegetables, fruit from Flathead Valley orchards, local honey
Pick up locations: Fridays at Purple Frog Gardens or Tuesday at Whitefish Farmers Market
Two Bear Farm
This certified organic farm lies on 65 acres near the Stillwater River and Spencer Mountain.
Todd and Rebecca Ulizio have run a farm for the past 11 years. They started up in Eureka as Ten Lakes Farm focused strictly on providing CSA shares before moving closer to Whitefish four years ago and rebranding as Two Bear. Now they sell produce at some local markets, farmers markets and through their CSA program, which Todd said still comprises about 50 percent of their business.
“Montana is definitely a challenging place to grow vegetables for a living,” said Todd, who grew up on a farm in Connecticut and later spent eight years tracking wolverines as a wildlife biologist.
In the Two Bear Farm plant CSA, customers can sign up for one of several different pre-arranged packages of various sizes or request a custom assortment of plant starts. Starts are distributed in May so people can get them in the ground and grow their own produce through the summer. More information, including a sign up form, can be found on their website.
They sell 250 regular CSA vegetable shares each year and Todd said they often hit the max early on and have to turn people away.
Location: 1978 K M Ranch Rd., Whitefish
Cost: $550/full share; $365/partial share
Duration: 21 weeks
Pick up locations: Tuesday at Whitefish Farmers Market, Wednesday at private residence in West Glacier, Thursday at Columbia Falls Community Market, Friday at Two Bear Farm, Saturday morning at Kalispell Farmers Market
Lower Valley Farm
Mandy Gerth and Jay Cummings are coming up on their sixth growing season on land that has been in Cummings’ family since just after World War II, located south of Kalispell near Somers.
They have drop-off locations in Kalispell and the southern end of the valley.
Gerth and Cummings met while pursing masters of visual arts degrees in the Midwest. They spent time living in Philadelphia and working as professional artists before moving to Montana where they started to farm the family land. They also live on the land with their three boys.
They put a concerted effort into making sure every CSA box includes at least one vegetable from four different categories: herb or microgreen, root crop, an allium (onion family), a braising green like kale or chard and a salad crop. They also include a weekly newsletter and a recipe that will help consumers try new dishes.
They are accommodating 200 CSA shareholders this year.
Location: 1375 N Somers Rd., Kalispell
Cost: $525/full share; $365 partial
Duration: 21 weeks
Pick up locations: Tuesday evening at a private residence in Kalispell; All day Wednesday at Mountain Valley Foods in Kalispell; Thursday evening at the farm near Somers; Early Friday morning at Crossfit Flathead in Kalispell; Saturday morning at the Kalispell Farmers Market
Snow Country Gardens
This small farm run by Hans Helmstatler and his family is entering its fifth growing season. They live in Happy Valley and do a lot of the processing work there and have a small heat tunnel for cold-weather growing. Their 2 acres are on land they lease near the Blue Moon west of Columbia Falls.
Helmstatler said what distinguishes his product from other CSA shares is the diversity of crops. He said they gamble on growing a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers. Last year, they put out 22 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Helmstatler has 30 spots available for the 2018 season because he wants to make sure he fills all the wholesale obligations he has with area restaurants.
His farm isn’t certified organic, because he said that process costs a lot of money. He said all of their growing processes conform to many organic criteria.
He pays his children a quarter per bug to catch them in nets rather than use pesticides that would threaten the sanctity of his produce. He also said they hoped to obtain organic certification in the years to come.
Both Helmstatler and his wife, Tamara, work outside the farm to help fund it in these early years. When he isn’t farming, he’s teaching biology at Flathead Valley Community College.
Location: 211 Goat Trail, Whitefish
Cost: $500 ($475 before March 31)
Duration: 20 weeks
Pick up locations: Tuesdays at the Whitefish Farmer’s; the Helmstatler’s home in Happy Valley, and as yet undetermined locations in Kalispell and Columbia Falls
Judy Owsowitz of Terrapin Farms brought her CSA program to the Flathead Valley in 1995 and has been operating it here ever since. She cultivates 7 acres off Farm to Market Road.
She has been certified organic from the beginning, and over the years has also made inroads to promote local, high-quality food consumption in the community. She’s worked with schools to develop healthier lunch menus and hosts interns and volunteers on the farm throughout the growing season.
The farm’s longevity has allowed fruit-bearing trees to grow to maturity. In past years they have contracted with a certified organic cherry farm on Finley Point to include cherries in some CSA shares, and have included strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and apples as well. Owsowitz also works to give large shares of fall foods at the end of the season so people can continue to enjoy the produce well into the winter.
Location: 6505 Farm to Market Rd., Whitefish
CSA pick-up is on Fridays. Owsowitz is also willing to work with groups that purchase eight shares or more and want to coordinate a drop-off point.
Cost: $575/full; $385 half share
Duration: Mid June through mid October
Contents: Vegetables, fruit
Pick up locations: Fridays on the farm, or after 5 p.m. at various in-town locations
Wicked Good Farm
Brooke Bohannon and Sean Hard moved to Montana from the East Coast and brought with them a passion for urban farming. They set up shop in Whitefish where they grow their more sensitive crops in a plot adjacent to their house and have an off-site, 1-acre farm that has supplied a CSA program for three years.
The CSA is distinguished by one specialty product: fresh-milled flour. They get grains from Great Falls and mill their own flour in the Flathead.
Bohannon said a large swath of their clientele come from Whitefish and live in close proximity to them, and that fits well with their community-oriented philosophy. Bohannon also facilitates the sale of local produce from many of the area farms to Flathead Valley restaurants.
Cost: $500/full share; $325/partial share
Duration: Mid May through mid September
Contents: Vegetables, fresh-milled flour
Pick up locations: Tuesdays from 5-7 p.m. either at the Whitefish Farmers Market or the Wicked Good Farm
Raven Ridge Farm
This farm is run by the youngest set of farmers in the area. Nathan Christianson just turned 26, and Cassady Daley is only 24.
“We are sort of the next generation of young farmers in the valley,” said Christianson, who cut his teeth farming in the valley by working for Two Bear Farm when they were still Ten Lakes Farm in Eureka.
They run their CSA program with a focus on getting members out to their farm to pick out exactly which vegetables will go in their bin. They have just over 3 acres and cultivate a little over 1 acre on the east end of Kalispell.
All the produce is laid out in the barn, and members are told how many of each item they get that week and then are allowed to pick out the items that look most appealing.
Location: 435 Anderson Lane, Kalispell
Cost: $600/full share; $375/ partial share
Duration: 21 weeks
Pick up locations: At the farm two miles east of Kalispell on Monday or Tuesday evening from 4 to 7 p.m.
Whitefish Stage Farm
Whitefish Stage Farm is a relative newcomer to the valley, but quickly established itself as one of the largest with 240 CSA subscribers last year. They are entering their third growing season on 20 cultivated acres off Whitefish Stage Road.
When Scott Lester talks about farming, he is assertive that the technical details of how they cultivate the land are linked to a broader moral agenda.
This CSA is unique in that folks come to the farm and pick their own fruit and vegetables that comprise their share from the farm stand. They are told how many of each item they get that week, and then get to examine all the produce. The farm also contracts with local orchards. They don’t do farmers market pick-ups, but Lester touts their central location.
“We are a mile, as the crow flies, from Costco,” Lester said.
CSA members also receive a 20 percent discount over all the other produce they purchase in the farm store and get free tickets to the hay bale maze the Lesters put together in the fall, among other benefits that can be read about on their website.
Location: 2288 Whitefish Stage Rd., Kalispell
Duration: 21 weeks
Contents: Vegetables and fruit
Pick up locations: Thursday or Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the farm store, just north of Kalispell
Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.