Sustaining Agriculture and Community: Moving the Farm Improvement Club Program Beyond the Farm Gate

Final Report for SW96-019

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $124,425.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $131,937.81
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Jonda Crosby
Alternative Energy Resources Organization
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Project Information


AERO’s farm improvement clubs have clearly moved beyond the farm gate and out into the surrounding communities. They are increasing farm and community economic health by encouraging new enterprises and by advancing into commercial development of their products. Fourteen clubs focused on new enterprise and business development. These clubs are making new connections in their communities with such diverse groups as local Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs, and new small landowners. As a result, producers are finding new markets for their products, ranchers are helping their new neighbors learn stewardship practices, and schools are using local resources to build curricula. Five clubs directed their efforts towards building the relationships necessary to develop processing, marketing and transportation infrastructures.

An evaluation of the farm club program in 1996 showed that the knowledge and experience gained by the program participants is concrete and practical: 60 percent of producers in the program have made real changes in their operations as a result of their participation, and a majority have gained some financial benefit. That such a large percentage of club members have been affected is a telling indicator that the farm club model continues to be a successful vehicle for farmers adopting new practices.

As Rod Daniel, a partner in Montana Arnica, a successful herb-growing enterprise, puts it, “If it weren’t for the farm clubs, I wouldn’t be farming now.” He became active in one of the original farm improvement clubs and said, “I started attending the annual farm club gatherings and I’d meet farmers from all over the state and they really inspired me.” Rod has continued to participate in farm club activities and in 1999, is a club leader for the Medicinal Herb Growers Club.

Another measure of the program’s success is that 12 states and provinces have organized farm improvement club-type programs based on AERO’s. These programs have recently linked into an informal network to share lessons learned. AERO itself has used the farm club model to start up a network of seven community food systems study-action groups, four Smart Growth and Transportation Chapters and twelve SARE PDP youth educator teams within the last three years.

Many of the farm clubs have used the small grants they received to leverage additional state and federal funds. The Mission Mountain Marketing Cooperative has received over $200,000 in market and business development funds in state and federal grants; this includes a USDA marketing grant for $190,000 in 1999 for a 12,000-square-foot multipurpose processing center and business incubator in the Mission Valley. The Montana Natural Lamb Cooperative received a $5,200 grant from the MT Department of Agriculture to perform a marketing study and conduct taste tests on their market lambs. The Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) Weed Team in the Bitterroot Valley received additional funding from the state Noxious Weed Trust Fund. One of the producers in the Stanford Black Medic Project received two SARE Farmer/Rancher grants, about $4,600 each, to continue studying black medic for use as forage and a soil builder in a crop-grazing rotation.

The farm club program has been a catalyst for MASNet, a coalition of private, nonprofit organizations and public agencies, formed to better serve Montana agriculture as an informational and educational network. As a result of this coalition, member organizations took on new leadership roles in the sustainable agriculture community and formed new relationships with each other.

Project Objectives:

1. Improve the support for sustainable agriculture by helping create a collaborative network of all public and private sustainable agriculture programs in Montana.

2. Increase farm and community economic viability by helping farm improvement clubs identify and develop commercial potential for their products.

3. Increase opportunities for reciprocity between farm improvement clubs and their communities in an effort to build social capital.

4. Inform those administering farm improvement club-type programs and the interested public of what works, what doesn't, and what we would change in our own program and why.


Research results and discussion:

Vanessa Dowdle, age 17, and a member of the Kid’s Farm Club, provides an example of how the farm club program continues to meet the needs of the diverse group of people in Montana agriculture. She wrote in their club’s report: “It was the farm club that opened our eyes to what was going on around us! We have met so many interesting people through our field trips and associations with other clubs in the area. Field trips to places like a potato tissue cloning lab, goat dairy farm, wild game hatchery, and a trout farm have shown us how fascinating and diverse agriculture can be. Being involved with the Weed Team [farm improvement club] and going to the community meetings about herbicides and alternative weed control has taught us more about science and politics than we would have ever learned from a textbook. With our farm club activities keeping us interested and inspired, we now have a HUGE garden, at least a thousand trees and bushes on our property, as well as chickens, ducks, turkeys, and various other animals hanging around.”

Objective 1. Improve the support for sustainable agriculture.

Create a collaborative network. The Montana Ag Sustainability Network (MASNet) steering committee is a coalition of private, nonprofit organizations and public agencies, including the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Montana Salinity Control Association, Montana State University Extension Service and Agriculture Experiment Stations, Montana Association of Conservation Districts, AERO and others, formed to better serve Montana agriculture as an informational and educational network. MASNet’s purpose is to share information, to avoid working at cross purposes and, instead of working in isolation, to work together to use member groups’ resources more effectively. Members chose not to create a new organization; they wanted a coalition that takes advantage of the strengths of the member organizations. As a result of this coalition, member organizations took on new leadership roles in the sustainable agriculture community and formed new relationships with each other.

As MASNet has grown and changed, it has continually re-evaluated its goals and objectives and shifted resources to meet the needs identified by the member organizations. In late 1996, MASNet increased its membership by successfully recruiting the Montana Department of Agriculture and the Montana Resource Conservation and Development Association to join.

For a period of a year, MASNet had paid staff and water quality funding which enabled the group to undertake programmatic activities. After a time, members felt that the coalition was moving away from the original mission and that the activities were taking too much of their time, since everyone in the coalition already had a full-time job. They also found that if the staff of a coalition does too much, the coalition members become passive. This passivity made it more difficult for the coalition members to build group commitment. As a result, they decided not to raise more funds and they terminated the staff position.

In 1997 and 1998, three key coalition leaders either left their organizations or were promoted to different roles, which resulted in their being replaced on the MASNet steering committee by someone else from within their organization. Since collaborations are built on relationships, major personnel changes have disrupted the relationship-building process and have resulted in a lot of energy used to bring new members up to speed. The turnover MASNet has experienced has been challenging.

During the recent regrouping of the coalition, MASNet had started exploring Washington State University’s Ag Horizons Team model, a self-directed team of researchers and extension agents who are educating themselves to respond to requests from farmers and ranchers seeking help with farming systems problems. The Ag Horizons Team came to Montana and toured exemplary sustainable agriculture operations with AERO.

MASNet has not yet tried to implement the Ag Horizons model, either because the organizations’ field people (for example, extension agents) were not enthused by the idea or, because with MASNet’s regrouping, they did not get the word out sufficiently to the field people about the model. While MASNet has not held a meeting within the last year, members of the group have expressed interest in getting together in the near future and continuing the coalition’s efforts, though at a reduced level from their 1996 and 1997 activities.

Educational outreach. In 1997, MASNet hosted a series of farm tours and forums featuring cropping and grazing technologies that prevent non-point source water pollution. These educational events were funded by federal 319 water quality funds through the Montana DNRC. The significance of these particular events promoting sustainable agriculture is found in the fact that they were initiated by a much broader group of organizations than in past years. The state Department of Agriculture, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Montana Salinity Control Association all organized tours, sponsored and publicized by MASNet.

The Department of Agriculture organized a tour on the N Bar ranch in central Montana that focused on using flea beetles to control leafy spurge and which featured a flea beetle roundup. The NRCS organized a tour near Anaconda that demonstrated grazing systems developed for wildlife enhancement.

One of the other tours was hosted by five organic farmers in one of Montana's largest wheat growing areas. The hosts, Robert and Anne Boettcher, Jon and Sharla Tester, and Duane Cook, were impressed by the 60 people, including farmers, university scientists, the NRCS state agronomist, and the state Farm Services Agency director, who attended, double what they expected. The hosts also noted that most of the people attending were conventional farmers beginning to look for alternatives. This tour has become an annual event and continues to attract a large number of people in both 1998 and 1999.

As a result of the reputation that the Boettchers, Testers, and Cookes have acquired as serious and knowledgeable organic farmers, they attracted the attention of the Montana State University (MSU) Dean of Agriculture, who attended the 1999 tour and is contemplating adding organic farmers to the research advisory board. Three research projects are currently being conducted on these farms: MSU weed ecologist Bruce Maxwell is conducting weed research in organic rotations, MSU agronomist Grant Jackson is tracking changes in soil characteristics, and MSU alternative crops agronomist Perry Miller is focusing on the economics of organic agriculture. Attachment A contains articles about these tours.

Information outreach. AERO has organized ten years of farm and ranch improvement club research and activities into two sets of three-ring binders. These are available at the AERO office for all those interested in following the research the clubs have undertaken over the last decade. Binders include each club’s proposals, final reports, press clippings, and other pertinent information. A computerized listing of all clubs, contact persons, and the information from each club is also available.

The development of a database and associated indexing project has proved to be a formidable undertaking. In 1999, the AERO office completed the conversion to a new database program and will be organizing the ten years of information under a separate SARE grant beginning in January 2000.

Objective 2. Increase farm and community economic viability.

Milk thistle sales to Taiwan, new markets for local produce growers, and a cooperative processing kitchen for local growers are some of the accomplishments that AERO’s farm improvement clubs have achieved. More of the clubs are focusing on market development and they are succeeding in making a difference their bottom line. Fourteen, or about 20 percent, of the active clubs, between 1996 and 1999 had a marketing development focus to their projects.

Clubs with projects focused on marketing, processing and/or enterprise development have struggled more than clubs doing on-farm research. We think this stems from the fact that enterprise development activities are more profoundly affected by the wider world, and are less within the clubs’ community or control. Building markets and the products to meet the market needs also take time.

Education and training. To better address farm improvement clubs' need for business development and marketing skills, AERO undertook an inventory of business development services offered by public and private organizations across Montana. This activity was prompted by a question we often hear – Where do I go for help with my business idea? AERO's 1997 publication (updated in 1998), the Montana FarmLink Toolbox, includes the results of this inventory.

AERO hosted a state-wide workshop in February 1997, for farm improvement clubs and invited the general public as well. Over 70 people, the majority of whom were involved in a farm club, attended "Enterprise Development Where Land and Communities Matter: A Workshop For Food And Agricultural Entrepreneurs." As a result of this workshop, in 1998 AERO received five proposals from farm improvement clubs with an enterprise development focus.

AERO has provided enterprise development material from the Sirolli Institute to entrepreneurs seeking to build their business skills. For example, recently, AERO provided Timeless Seeds with material on how to devise a successful business plan; Timeless will use the business plan to pursue financial backing for expanding their seed plant and marketing a retail line of organic food products. Included in the retail line will be several varieties of lentils that are grown in Montana, providing a market for alternative crops that many of the farm club members are now growing.

Increase economic viability. New clubs are focusing on local economic development, including the processing of locally grown food. Club members have come to realize that once they have learned how to grow alternative crops in a sustainable manner, they need to find and develop markets for these crops.

Success stories from AERO’s farm clubs have encouraged producers who have been experiencing depressed commodity prices to explore alternatives. Throughout the rest of the report are stories from active clubs between 1996 and 1999, some of which are currently funded and some of which are not funded but still participate in the network. Space limitations don’t allow examples from all of the clubs - these have been chosen to illustrate the breadth of the program’s accomplishments in the reporting period.

1. The Mission Mountain Marketing Cooperative of Ronan is an offshoot of a farm club formed in 1990, the first year of AERO’s program. Originally a group of market growers, the club evolved into a producers’ cooperative and in 1998, took on the idea of organizing a community commercial kitchen. This club is a great example of how a farm club has evolved to meet the members’ needs, from supporting growers who were trying new crops to now providing a facility to add value to those crops for increased economic viability of the growers’ operations. “We want to find ways to link local growers with new markets and food processors,” said Jan Tusick, one of the club’s founding members.

The AERO club grants have leveraged over $200,000 in market and business development funds in state and federal grants for this ever expanding club. After researching commercial kitchens in the United States and Canada, Jan Tusick and Billie Lee, executive director of the Lake County Community Development Corporation, applied for and received grant money from the MT Department of Agriculture in 1998 for a marketing plan. Using this plan, they were awarded one of only 10 USDA marketing grants in the amount of $190,000 in 1999 for a 12,000 square foot multipurpose processing center and business incubator in the Mission Valley. A third grant from the MT Department of Agriculture was awarded in 1999, but has not yet been received. The center is expected to eventually employ 40 people, including 5 full-time employees.

2. The Chokecherry Syrup/Pancake Mix Club may soon be shipping chokecherry syrup to Taiwan. Club members are making plans to grow and process chokecherries on a large scale. It is possible that a Taiwan market could result in the demand for 50,000 jars of syrup at a time as a substitute for huckleberry products.

The club, formed in the northeastern part of the state by several full-time grain and livestock producers, started out in 1998 to develop their idea of using local native chokecherries and locally grown wheat in a value-added product. They are selling pancake mix and chokecherry syrup packaged together at craft shows and have their product in four stores. During the first year, they sold almost $1,700 worth of product. The local Lions Club plans to buy syrup from them for a pancake breakfast.

In 1998, a Montana trade delegation visited Taiwan and took a sample package of the club’s syrup and pancake mix. At the time, the idea was not received with a great deal of enthusiasm since the concept of pancakes and syrup are unfamiliar to the Taiwanese culture. Recently, however, Dave Oien of Timeless Seeds, who has established trade relations with several Taiwanese buyers and regularly ships products to Taiwan, called Mikel Lund of the chokecherry club with an idea: a Taiwan trade delegation visiting Montana in August 1999, was very interested in huckleberry products. Dave’s subsequent research has shown that huckleberries, a wild-crafted crop in northwestern Montana, are extremely volatile from year to year, both in supply and price. Dave thinks that chokecherry products, because they are a more reliable crop and are also easily cultivated, could be a good substitute.

Mikel Lund plans to plant 600 chokecherry trees on his farm next spring. He has been looking for alternatives and the chokecherry farm club has provided him the vehicle with which to pursue new and potentially lucrative enterprises. Mikel said, “With the farm economy these days, farming just ain’t as fun as it was in the ‘80’s, and we were in the middle of drought then. I’m looking to put more fun back into my farming.”

3. The Flathead Valley Chef’s Collaborative, originally formed in 1997, was revitalized in 1999 with the “Taste of the Flathead,” a dinner highlighting locally grown foods in Polson. Described by chef Peg Schaefer, one of the organizers, as a “celebration of the bounty of the area,” the dinner was served to 140 people. Organizers felt that one of the successes of the dinner was that they were reaching customers and chefs who had previously known little about the wide variety and availability of locally grown food. Local producer Patti Fialcowitz said that one immediate result of this event is that she has had more buyers for her produce. Encouraged by the success of the “Taste of the Flathead” dinner, the Polson Chamber of Commerce, at its annual dinner, featured all locally grown produce, a first for the Chamber.

4. The Gallatin Valley Growers Association, a club that has been existence since 1992, has made an economic difference in the lives of the member growers. They have worked at promoting locally and sustainably grown produce as a healthy alternative to imported produce. Towards this end they organized their own farmers’ market and designed a distinctive logo in 1998 for each of the growers to use as a label on all of their farm products. Growers have used these labels on produce sold at farmers’ markets, local grocery stores, and directly to customers at their farm stands. (See Attachment B for their logo).

5. "Our goal is to market our lambs within Montana," the members of the Montana Natural Lamb Cooperative have stated. Club members want to create a market for the lambs and are educating consumers about lamb and how to cook it by conducting taste tests in local grocery stores. They have received a $5,200 grant from the MT Department of Agriculture to perform a marketing study and conduct the taste tests. Their first demonstration, at an independently owned grocery store in Columbus, went well, with tasters very enthusiastic about the lamb. According to Maggie Julson, a sheep rancher and club member, they are targeting independently owned grocery stores for selling their lamb, “so we don’t have to compete with Australia,” which sells lamb to large chain stores.

6. In Prairie County the largest source of farm profit is livestock. The Prairie Farm Improvement Club is addressing one of the problems livestock producers face by looking for ways to use summerfallow land to produce winter feed for livestock. In 1998, Brent Kalfell, one of the club members, pastured his cattle on pea residue after harvesting the peas. Because eastern Montana was experiencing a drought in 1998, the additional pasture saved him three weeks worth of expensive feed costs.

7. The second, expanded edition of Abundant Montana-AERO’s Directory to Montana Grown Food, is providing an exciting and effective way for producers to directly market their products to consumers and retailers. Over 30, or about 45 percent, of the producers listed in Abundant Montana are or have been farm and ranch improvement club members. Not only does this directory provide an outlet for farm club members to sell their products, but without the farm club members, Abundant Montana would not have as much to offer the consumer. Abundant Montana is more than a tool for selling sustainably grown and produced agricultural products, it is a means to building lasting relationships between producers, retailers and consumers. (See Attachment C for the first and second editions of Abundant Montana).

Objective 3. Increase opportunities for reciprocity.

A rancher meets his new neighbors and works out a mutually beneficial arrangement for noxious weed control, a retreat center starts a tradition of serving locally grown food on its menu and growing echinacea provides a way for neighboring farmers to get to know each other. These are all ways in which AERO’s farm clubs have built relationships between producers and consumers, ranchers and new landowners, and have built networks between producers in their own communities.

Building social capital and increasing membership diversity. Social capital is a necessary element in a thriving community. According to Iowa State University sociologist Cornelia Flora Butler, social capital includes a) mutual trust; b) reciprocal networks; c) formal and informal networks joined together to discover mutual issues and find alternatives; d) shared symbols; and e) a sense of collective identity. Communities that have social capital are more vibrant because everyone is involved in solutions, and everyone is important and has a part.

AERO's farm & ranch improvement club network is a thriving model of a community with a high degree of social capital and 10 years of history. People who became involved clubs in 1990 continue to be a resource even if they are no longer in a funded club. Clubs who have not had financial support from AERO for some time (for example, the Northwest Organic Growers) are still going strong and contributing to the network. The investment of the original small grants to these clubs is still paying off; their ongoing participation has continuing value to the community.

8. The Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) Weed Team is working to educate the public, including new landowners, about the extent of the noxious weed problem in the Bitterroot Valley, the hazards of herbicide spraying, and the alternatives available for controlling noxious weeds. The group has found that collaboration with the Ravalli County Weed Board and the Ravalli County Weed Awareness Group is the most challenging aspect of the project while also representing the best opportunity for effecting lasting change in pesticide use in the county. One of the group’s technical assistance providers, the Montana State University Extension Weed Specialist, has helped the group bridge the gaps and keep communication lines open between it and the county weed control organizations. As Sue Wall-McLane, the club contact person, noted, “it’s challenging. It’s not like we all just hug each other. But we do try to have respect for each other’s positions, and we’ve been successful so far.” In 1997, the FOB received an award for demonstrating weed control alternatives from the Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

9. The Boulder Hot Springs Geothermal Greenhouse Club was formed in 1998 to build a geothermally heated greenhouse and learn how to manage it. Crops from the greenhouse are used in the retreat and conference center restaurant, which also uses as much food from local producers as possible in its menu. In August 1999, Boulder Hot Springs hosted its first completely “locally grown” buffet. They invited local growers to a “food fair” to make connections with consumers and sell their products. Barb Reiter, manager at the hot springs, said, “Our commitment to locally grown, healthy food is reinforced by the number of folks who specifically came to participate in this event." Since that first locally grown meal this past fall, the hot springs retreat center has held two more all-local buffets and plans to continue this over the next year.

10. The Stillwater Noxious Weed Team is focusing on weed control through community education and awareness programs and by targeting new landowners. One of the club members, a sheep rancher, approached his new out-of-state neighbor about some leafy spurge on the neighbor’s land. The neighbors were happy to find out about the new kinds of weeds and where to go for answers. The rancher and the neighbors negotiated a grazing agreement to control the leafy spurge and in the process, strengthened community and neighbor relations. The club is informing the community about weeds and weed control with their weed information packet, by talking to neighbors, meeting with state and local officials, and sharing results of their on-ranch research.

11. The Lake Missoula Permaculture Club has set out to search for and adapt permaculture methods to the Northern Rockies climate of a short growing season with cold nights. After showing the local school principal a permaculture video, “The Global Gardener,” they were asked to develop a permaculture curriculum and demonstration plot at the Darby Elementary and Middle School, in Darby, Montana. The club is considering applying for an AERO SARE PDP Youth grant to complete this project.

12. The Jefferson Valley Echinacea Growers was formed by a group of farmers who set out to grow echinacea on a larger scale than small garden plots in a large, conservative agricultural valley. Members did not know each other prior to joining the club. Now, farmers from one end of the valley are talking to and learning from farmers on the other end and then talking to their neighbors in between. Farmers in the valley are becoming more accepting of herb production as a viable alternative crop. The four farm families currently in the club view the club’s efforts as an experiment that might allow each family to pass the farm onto the next generation as opposed to selling or subdividing the land.

13. The Kid's Farm Club, AERO’s first farm club organized and run by youngsters, has had an impact in the Bitterroot Valley beyond the club itself. As member Vanessa Dowdle reports: "We often invite friends to join us at our field trips... I think the entire community benefits when their children learn to appreciate the hard work that goes into bringing the food to the grocery store each day, or learn just where the wool in that sweater came from. A love of the land and rural lifestyles is a great gift to pass on to the coming generation."

Objective 4. Inform those administering farm improvement club-type programs.

New farm improvement club-type programs. The farm improvement club model is proven in its ability to nurture sustainable agriculture. AERO has assumed the role of mentor in assisting farm improvement club programs modeled after AERO's own to start up in 12 states and provinces. AERO staff and members and farm club members have been invited to make presentations all over the country about the farm club model; AERO staff answer daily questions via phone and email, and fill information requests regularly. An AERO staff member was asked to give a presentation to a Massachusetts group of agencies and non-profits interested in forming themselves into a MASNet-like coalition to sponsor farm clubs. After the presentation, the coalition set up a farm club program. Representatives from the Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides who are working with a farm club program of raspberry growers in Washington attended AERO’s 1998 farm club annual meeting to learn more about our club annual meetings and the networking that goes on between clubs.

AERO was one of a group of farm improvement club-type program administrators receiving a small grant from the Kellogg IFFS network for a series of conference calls for participants to share lessons learned about our programs. There is now a critical mass of farm improvement club-type programs, with AERO no longer only a mentor, but a learner in this peer group as well. We are benefiting from each other’s experiences and continue to expand and improve our own program. The group found many common characteristics about farm clubs; for example, they found that clubs need to be built upon local leadership, members naturally seek out individuals of their own ilk, and clubs must meet the practical needs of the farm business and family. The complete summary of the phone conferences is included in Attachment D.

The farm club program is a model whose usefulness AERO is testing in new arenas. It is central to AERO's Professional Development Program for Leaders and Educators of Youth Programs (SARE PDP), the Montana Food Systems Initiative, and AERO’s Smart Growth and Transportation Program.

The SARE PDP program is supporting community-based teams of educators who are designing, testing and disseminating learning materials that help youth better understand the interconnectedness of people, agriculture, community and the environment.

In 1998 and 1999, AERO funded seven local food systems study-action groups formed to localize their food system. On September 1, 1999, AERO launched four Smart Growth and Transportation Clubs modeled after the farm clubs. So far, the Smart Growth Clubs have been awarded small grants to support their projects located in Missoula, Helena and Livingston.

Technical assistance providers involved with farm improvement clubs are creating new models for supporting and assisting the generation of knowledge about sustainable agriculture occurring at the grassroots level. Washington State University’s Ag Horizons Team of Extension and Research staff captured the imagination of MASNet and vice versa. The Ag Horizons Team came to Montana and toured exemplary sustainable agriculture operations with AERO. During the tour, Ag Horizon's team member Collette DePhelps said, "If only the Ag Horizons Team had a network of farmers like Montana has, imagine what we could do." Nancy Matheson of AERO and MASNet responded with, "If only Montana had an MSU Ag Horizons Team providing on-the-ground support for producers engaged in sustainable agriculture, imagine what we could do."

Foundation Visits. The farm club program is influencing private foundation granting. In June 1999, staff and board members from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation paid a visit to southwestern Montana. Participants met with members of the Gallatin Valley Growers, visited one of the member’s farms and the Community Food Co-op, where the Growers hold their Wednesday Market. Foundation staff and board members were impressed with how farm club members, by banding together to sell their produce, have benefited through increased access to markets. They also traveled to Boulder Hot Springs, site of the Boulder Geothermal Greenhouse Club. Conversations on the bus informally ranged from food production and valued-added products to food security issues and community sustainability.

In August, 1999, Oran Hesterman of the WK Kellogg Foundation visited northwestern Montana and met with several members of the Northwest Organic Growers Association, met with the Mission Valley Market Project and attended the Taste of the Flathead. Oran was impressed by the degree of progress the farm clubs had made toward sustaining their farms economically through innovative partnerships, such as producer cooperatives, and through marketing.

National conferences, workshops and meetings. AERO continues to be a nationally known resource for organizations wanting to learn more about the farm club program, how to get started, and the benefits for the producers and their communities. To that end, AERO staff and members, and farm club members have made presentations at the following meetings, conferences and workshops.

• The Kellogg Foundation’s Integrated Food and Farming Systems 1996 Conference in Maryland, presentations by AERO staff, entitled, “From the Ground Up: Community Development and Institutional Change,” about the farm and ranch improvement club program and “Farmer-Directed Learning: A Community Approach to Farming Systems Change.” (See Attachment E for the summaries of these two presentations, published by the Kellogg IFFS Network).

• Presentations on the farm club model to the 10th Anniversary celebration of SARE in Texas and to the Small Farmer’s Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

• Presentations on the farm club model to a Florida State University Extension-sponsored farmer’s meeting and to Montana State University Extension’s annual planning meeting.

• Presentations at a workshop at Alberta's Sustainable Agriculture Association's annual meeting in Calgary and at the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides annual meeting in Portland, Oregon.

• Presentations were made at a retreat including AERO, Idaho Rural Council, and Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute to compare the successes and challenges of administering our respective farm improvement club programs.

Written forms. Announcements and press releases about farm improvement club-related events and awards are disseminated regionally through MASNet, Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute and the Idaho Rural Council in Idaho, SARE PDP, and the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, as well as through media throughout Montana and the Northwest. Attachment F includes a sampling of articles about club activities.

• Annual club reports are made available to organizations and individuals upon request. AERO fills many requests for information about growing alternative crops, particularly herbs, garlic, and legumes. We regularly put requestors directly in touch with club members.

• Cross Connections, a directory of project participants supported by the Kellogg Foundation's Integrated Food and Farming Systems. This directory lists Kellogg participants by area of expertise. Fifteen AERO farm club members are currently listed as unique resources for farm club activities they have initiated.

• A doctoral dissertation entitled Reinventing Science through Agricultural Participatory Research written by Barbara Rusmore, the farm club program's evaluator, for the Fielding Institute, covers the farm club model in detail.

• AERO receives phone calls regularly from organizations seeking to know more about the farm club program. For example, we recently assisted Nebraska with its seasoned program and Northcentral SARE with its startup program.

Results. As a result of the farm club’s national reputation as a ready vehicle for getting on-farm research and demonstrations accomplished by visible and experienced practitioners, AERO’s farm improvement clubs have been invited to collaborate on three recently submitted project grant proposals. The proposals are with the following organizations:

1) Earth Systems, a private non-profit group from Bozeman, which has applied for an EPA grant to develop a farm and city composting system;
2) National Center for Appropriate Technology, a non-profit group in Butte, which has applied for a grant from the Montana Power Company to develop solar-powered agriculture demonstration projects; and,
3) Montana State University, which has applied for a SARE grant for an integrated pest management project that will graze sheep on wheat stubble to break up the wheat stem saw-fly cycle, a major wheat pest.

Research conclusions:

“The greatest impact of the farm and ranch improvement club program comes from its ability to encourage producers to experiment and implement new approaches to agriculture.” (Rusmore 1996). AERO sees beneficial changes in at least three areas that affect producers:

1) Broader awareness of viability of alternatives in the arenas of crops, pest and weed management, fertility and grazing systems. Twenty-four clubs developed projects in these areas.

One common thread AERO has seen in the program is the number of clubs devoted to incorporating legumes into the traditional Northern Plains dryland cereal-fallow cropping system. Based on the successes of the farm clubs, increasing numbers of producers are incorporating legumes into their crop rotations. As a direct result of the Bloomfield Farm Improvement Club, the acreage of legumes planted in Dawson County in eastern Montana grew from a few hundred acres in the early 1990’s to 6,200 acres in 1998. The producers in the Prairie Farm Improvement Club, also in eastern Montana, are using the legumes planted in their cropping systems as livestock forage. One producer has been growing peas and oats together and combining them into a pelleted ration he feeds to replacement heifers and bull calves. He no longer purchases soybeans!

2) Emphasis on new market and enterprise development. Fourteen clubs focused on marketing and business development.

The Milk Thistle Crop Development Club wanted to increase the viability of milk thistle, used in treating liver and blood disorders, as an alternative crop and research likely markets. Though milk thistle has been a commercial crop in Montana since 1990, members felt it had the potential to be a much more important crop. Members were right as in December 1999, Timeless Seeds of Conrad, Montana, completed its first $23,000 sale of Montana-grown milk thistle to Taiwan.

3) Developing new relationships necessary to the success of processing, marketing, and transportation infrastructure. Five clubs are developing these relationships in their communities and regions.

The Mission Mountain Marketing Cooperative’s 12,000-square-foot multipurpose processing center and business incubator in northwestern Montana is an excellent example of how producers are expanding into the areas of processing and marketing.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

1999 was a no-cost extension year for AERO’s SARE grant. Despite the fact that AERO had approximately one-third the funding as in previous years, we were still able to hold 17 field days, tours and workshops and fund 12 clubs.

Annual meeting. The farm clubs’ annual meeting is designed to be a place where each club has the opportunity to report on their project and learn from each other. By bringing club members together from the wide variety of growing regions of Montana, we facilitate the discovery of commonalties and interests among producers from very different enterprise types. For example, at the 1998 meeting, urban gardeners, organic farmers, ranchers and small acreage owners discovered they all shared the problem of weed control. A university researcher made a presentation on a long-term weed research project he was conducting which led into a lively discussion by all the clubs present about how they have successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with weeds.

Based on a 1997 evaluation by club members of the annual meeting, we decided to allow each club to invite two additional interested members of their community to the annual meeting. Also based on suggestions from that evaluation that food grown by the farm clubs be served at the meals, one of the lunches at the 1998 meeting featured locally grown food, with the salad greens provided by the Chico Geothermal Greenhouse Club.

Field days and range tours. Field days and tours have been some of the most effective ways for local people to view the clubs’ results. Field days provide a way for individuals who might be curious, for example, about why their neighbor planted peas instead of summerfallowing a particular field to show up on the neighbor’s farm and find out. Some of the tours and field days have evolved into annual events, even after the clubs are no longer active.

1998 events. In June, the Big Sandy organic farmers held their annual tour. In July, tours were held at Jess Alger’s farm in Stanford, at both Glenwood Farm and Marchi Angus Ranch near Polson, and at the Skelton Angus Ranch near Conrad. In September, three tours were held in the Bitterroot Valley, at the Bitterroot Weed Team weed management plots, at Helen Atthowe’s Biodesign Farm, and at the Bitterroot Biodynamic Farm. A two-day, two-bus Holistic Resource Management Tour was held near Roscoe in September, on a private ranch and in neighboring Yellowstone Park for contrast.

Other 1998 events included a Helena Community Gardening workshop, the Lake Missoula Permaculture Club's slide show and presentation, the Beartooth Club's "Land Management Shootout" and the Chico Hot Springs Greenhouse tours.

1999 events. The Medicinal Herb Growers Club held three tours in July and August in the Bitterroot Valley, Deer Lodge, and Livingston as well as promoting the Specialty Crops Tour at the Western Agricultural Research Station in Corvallis.

The organic farmers of Big Sandy held their 6th annual field tour and Jess Alger’s annual legumes and livestock field day was held in Stanford. The Flathead Farm-Orchard Improvement Club held a tour to demonstrate their use of nematodes to control fruit flies. The Northwest Organic Growers Association held two day-long tours; each day participants visited 4 farms selling herbs, vegetables, eggs or CSA shares. The Boulder Hot Springs tour included a tour of the greenhouse, locally grown buffet and a food fair. Three separate food processing days, Pickle Day, Salsa Day, and Cider Day, were held in the fall by members of the Northwest Organic Growers Association. The Oyster Mushroom Club held a workshop in October at the Teller Wildlife Refuge for landowners with riparian areas.

Written materials. The farm improvement clubs have generated a valuable body of knowledge about sustainable agriculture and alternative crops over the past ten years. Indexing and disseminating clubs' reports is a challenge and a priority that will begin under a new SARE grant in 2000.

We continue to publish results of farm club activities in our quarterly AERO Sun Times. The public media have utilized our press releases regularly, particularly the statewide Prairie Star and the Great Falls Tribune. Press releases are sent to local papers about local farm club activities and are generally published. (See Attachment F for articles about the clubs).

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Areas needing additional study

In August 1998, AERO’s membership took a look back through the past years of the farm improvement club program and then looked ahead at new and continuing directions for the program. In 1996 and 1997, emphasis in the club RFP on food systems resulted in losing mainstream farmers and losing geographic balance in the farm clubs. Members felt that moving back towards an agricultural emphasis while connecting farm clubs to the food systems groups would allow the program to retain the important characteristics that have made it so successful.

They made the following recommendations for the future of the farm club program as clubs move increasingly toward marketing and enterprise development.

• Encourage farming and ranching marketing clubs with marketing advisors and provide business development training (similar to the Sirolli workshop) to clubs.

• Issue fewer mini-grants to clubs in order to offer some grants of more than $1000 and provide more than 3 years of funding per club and pay club members and technical assistance providers to be trainers and resource people.

• Encourage AERO staff to help clubs partner with others who are or have resources, include more on-going organizing assistance, phoning and visits from AERO staff, and continue responding to the diverse needs of producers.

• Connect farm clubs to AERO’s other work: Montana Food Systems Initiative (this has been started) and Smart Growth, and have each club represented on AERO’s Ag Task Force.

• Keep the on-farm research focus and keep the reference to “producers” as group members; retain characteristic that clubs are still farmer-driven and emphasis that clubs learn more than teach.

• Get out the data about the benefits of new crops and cropping systems, make publicly available 10 years of legume data.

• Work with ATTRA to disseminate club materials, promote participation in trade fairs, and retain the importance of farm tours.

As AERO envisions the future five years hence, we see more farmers in the network, more diversity in club makeup, and a balance between on-farm research and other projects like market development. AERO will continue to move in new directions, keep its vital role as farmer advocate, develop new and diverse relationships, and provide ways to communicate and disseminate results as we head into our 11th year of Farm and Ranch Improvement Clubs.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.