A short growing season, the cost of land and the cost of living can all be obstacles to success in farming here in northwest Montana. But some farmers are looking for ways to quit their day jobs and give it a go at farming full time. A new class at Flathead Valley Community College aims to help farmers apply business savvy to their operations, and to connect with the communities that surround them.
Pam Gerwe of the Purple Frog Gardens leads the way through her snow covered garden on the outskirts of Whitefish. In the summertime produce from the Purple frog Gardens is a fixture at local farmers markets.
“We really like greens a lot, we grow a lot of brassicas; kale, broccoli, we grow chard and beets, and a lot of alliums which is garlic, leeks, we grow a lot of things that are pretty cold hearty. We grow a little bit of things like tomatoes and peppers, but it’s just been pretty discouraging – our short growing season, we can have a frost any month,” Gerwe said they also grow raspberries and currants and are developing a small orchard.
Right now, the garden has paths stamped out in the snow leading to the chicken coop and a hoop house, and a few rows of kale are wintering near the fence.
“In the spring it’ll shoot off a little bit of new growth which we mostly will just eat ourselves, but there’s no longer a marketable product there at all. And then in this building we have a tiny bit of chard, but, it’s so gray here, and the days are so short that most of the stuff that we have left at the farm, we just hoard,” Gerwe said.
The Purple Frog Gardens started in 1991 and Gerwe says they’ve been farming full time for the past 6-years,“we’re a production farm, a market farm, but community is really important to us,” Gerwe said, “so we try to get as many people into the garden as we can.”
Gerwe is planning to take a new, not-for-credit class at the Flathead Valley Community College called Multifunctional Agriculture. The course is designed for people like Gerwe to focus on creating business plans for farms, and also on ways to connect with the community.
“I’m not super economically driven, but I do need to earn my living doing this,” Gerwe said, “if I could produce X-number-less bunches of kale, and have X-number more people come to the farm, as I get older, that might be a much appreciated- I’d like to stand up a little more…”
“We want to work with people who have an idea in their head, and it might be somewhat vague, and some people might be doing something and want to improve it, but we want them to have that idea,” Maarten Fischer is teaching the course. Fischer is originally from the Netherlands where he worked on farms as a college student.
“It always struck me that they are doing awesome things that could mean a great deal to the community and the farmers, but they weren’t making money. So, at some point, I made it my goal to try to change that,” Fischer said.
Fischer worked to establish several cooperatives of farms with different focuses. He talks about Childcare Farms where kids come in, live on a farm, learn to grow food and get some outside-time. He says in the Netherlands there are more than 1-hundred farms hosting Farmers’ Golf.
“It’s a clog on a stick and a big ball, and a cow pastured field where people have to play golf with the big ball, and occasionally slip on cow pies, and there are literally tens of thousands of people doing this every year in the Netherlands,” Fischer said.
Fischer says these are ways to look at agriculture in a multifunctional way, “multifunctional can be interpreted in many ways, and what’s a word?” Fischer said, “the word in this case is translated to trying to connect to your community and offer services to visitors.”
Fisher says in the Netherlands almost 25-percent of farmers are doing activities that involve visitors. He says these multifunctional farms turn over a total of $600-million-dollars per year.
“It has just surprised me that in all of America, also in Montana, there’s so very little of it, and there are a growing number, or there is a growing number of farms and ranches that focus on the community. But, as I see it, not a lot of them are managing to do that in a way that also gives them some additional income,” Fischer said.
The class starts January 31st. Fischer says the Ag-students will be working with some of FVCC’s business students to prepare their business plans. The course is available at FVCC through a state Growth Through Agriculture Grant.