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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: barley, canola, flax, oats, rye, safflower, sunflower, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: apples, berries (other), cherries
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, lentils, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, sheep, swine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing - multispecies, pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, winter forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, study circle
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, marketing management, market study, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, indicators, riparian buffers, riverbank protection, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: allelopathy, competition, compost extracts, field monitoring/scouting, flame, integrated pest management, mulches - killed, mulches - living, mating disruption, physical control, mulching - vegetative, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, holistic management, permaculture
  • Soil Management: earthworms, green manures, organic matter, soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban agriculture, urban/rural integration, social capital, social networks


    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.

    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.