When Tawnya Rourke Kelly moved to the Flathead Valley three years ago, she wanted to find a community in which she and her family could fit, and quickly.
She decided to look in her main area of interest: Permaculture, which is the development of agricultural ecosystems that are designed to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
“I went looking for permaculture people, and I couldn’t find them,” Rourke Kelly said.
Memories of a seed-swap event in California came to mind, and Rourke Kelly tried to find a similar event here, where gardeners and farmers and plant enthusiasts gather to share seeds, take workshops, give panels, and collaborate on community issues.
There was a small event in Whitefish, and Rourke Kelly made contacts with permaculture folks in the valley. Four of them, including Robin Kelson of the Good Seed Co. in Whitefish, got together to brainstorm about having a larger event, and reached out to 200 likeminded people in the valley.
Ten weeks later, the first Free the Seeds: Seed and Start Fair took place at Flathead Valley Community College. The organizing team expected 300 people at most, Rourke Kelly said, but 1,600 people showed up.
“So many people wish they knew how to grow plants,” Rourke Kelly said. “We really wanted to empower people.”
Not only did the participants get to share, exchange, and/or give away their extra non-GMO, non-pollinated seeds, starts, and cuttings, but there were 25 workshops, panels and classes to choose from.
Now, with the second Free the Seeds event planned for March 4 at FVCC, the group behind the event has troubleshot the hiccups from last year, hoping to provide a smooth, free, fun, and informative event for local people.
The seed swap will take place from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. to avoid too much overlap with the workshops, Rourke Kelly said. Food trucks will be available for lunchtime, and the workshops run from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The organizers secured FVCC’s theater for some of the most popular workshops.
“We turned people away from classes last year because there wasn’t enough space,” Rourke Kelly said.
Three of last year’s most popular classes – soil mineralization, fruit tree pruning, and fruit tree grafting – will all run twice due to demand.
Teachers looking for continuing education credits can sign up for a class on how to manage school gardens; Rourke Kelly said this is the only workshop that requires pre-registration.
Everything else is free and open to the public, first come first served. Two rooms will focus on activities for kids to learn about growing their own food, where anyone 8 years old and older can stay and learn. It’s not child care, Rourke Kelly said, but if a kid doesn’t want to go to a tree-pruning class, they can learn through hands-on projects in the kids’ rooms.
ImagineIF Libraries will start its new seed library, called “Flathead Grows,” this year, which is the result of one of the community conversations held at last year’s event. This year, those conversations will discuss permaculture design and food forests in the downtown revitalization rails project in Kalispell; growing food in Northwest Montana in the changing climate; food access issues; and a panel of community organizations with ways to get involved.
The workshops include everything from an introduction to honey bees to building solar greenhouses to advice from occupational therapists on how to best work in the garden without hurting yourself.
“It’s pretty broad but it’s exciting,” Rourke Kelly said.
The organizers are encouraging people to bring seeds before the event to the libraries around the valley for the swap. Already, the group has received thousands of packets of seeds donated from seed companies.
Volunteers are still needed, so those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the group’s website at www.FreetheSeedsMT.com.
Rourke Kelly said anyone interested in growing their own food should stop by to demystify the process. And who knows, you might even develop a sense of community.
“This is an excellent resource for people who are new to the area or the idea of gardening,” she said.
For more information, visit www.FreetheSeedsMT.com.