Diversifying the Farm

By Beacon Staff

Livestock once roamed nearly every farm in the Flathead and wheat covered large expanses of the valley floor. Semi-trucks hauled hogs away regularly and dairy farms weren’t uncommon.

But markets shifted, shipping costs took a bigger toll and, gradually, the face of Flathead agriculture changed. Farm animal populations dwindled and wheat fields increasingly shared acreage with crops like camelina, canola and lentils.

Competing in a global market, Flathead’s farmers are small fish in a huge pond. To carve out a livelihood, many get creative.

“In the Flathead, the agriculture has gone from the large acreage markets to the niche,” said Pat McGlynn, an agent with Flathead County’s Montana State University Extension office. “They have all this small acreage stuff. It’s changing the dynamics of what we grow here.”

Mark Lalum is general manager of CHS Inc., a cooperative representing regional farmers and a vital cornerstone of the valley’s agricultural industry. Lalum said McGlynn’s statement is “very true,” pointing to the increased prevalence of lentils, peas, canola and dill.

“We are working with (farmers) on crop diversity,” Lalum said. “We’re seeing a lot of those crops besides winter wheat and spring wheat and barley.”

Crop diversity is not only a response to market demands, but also an important part of sustainable farmland management. When farmers rotate their crops and rest their fields, it promotes healthier soil and helps avoid overworking a piece of land. Also, it cuts down on diseases, Lalum said.

“It’s not good management to do monoculture,” Lalum said.

Conversely, one crop that has always added particular distinction to the Flathead’s crop diversity has actually been in decline as other alternative crops have increased. That crop is mint. Farmers say there used to be close to 10,000 acres of land dedicated to mint farming in the valley and more than 30 growers.

Today, there are only a handful of operations working fewer than 1,000 acres.

Perhaps the most significant shift in Flathead agriculture, Lalum said, has been the reduction in livestock. Lalum said 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for every farm to have some form of livestock.

“There used to be a very strong livestock base: hogs to dairy to cattle to sheep,” Lalum said. “But due to shipping and dynamics of the markets there are very few livestock farms in the valley anymore.”

Hogs are fewer and farther between, Lalum said, and steers “just really aren’t around anymore.”

“They’re not raising hogs anymore – now they have to have a commodity to sell,” Lalum said. “We used to ship a semi-load of hogs out of the valley each week. If we ship one out a month now, I’d be surprised.”

The Flathead is at once conducive and prohibitive to crop diversity, depending on the area and the year. Like everywhere in Montana, farmers here must deal with harsh weather and short growing days, which limits the types of crops that can be grown. The temperature might be in the 80s and 90s for a few hours during the day, but at night it drops down to the 40s and 50s.

“We can’t grow corn here,” Lalum said. “There’s not enough heat units to grow it. Corn grows at night and we don’t have a lot of warm nights.”

“They are very limited,” he added, “on what crop alternatives they have. The harvesting window is small too.”

On the other hand, the region has lots of water and excellent soil – in spots. Lalum said the soil around Creston ranks in the top-five best in the state. But other areas have high sand and high clay. The valley, Lalum said, has “tremendous soil diversity,” with more than 200 types.

“You couldn’t make the statement that we have the best soil in the state,” Lalum said. “That’s not true. We probably have some of the worst too.”

While traditional farmers with big acreage are branching out into alternative crops, there’s also an increasing number of organic gardeners and horticulturalists growing crops on a smaller scale.

Multiple community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations are found throughout the valley and farmers’ markets are major weekly events in local communities. Even as more farmers grow vegetables for the markets, it’s not enough to satisfy people’s appetite for fresh, local veggies, McGlynn said.

“There’s lot of demand for the local foods movement,” McGlynn said.

People are also finding new avenues in livestock, McGlynn said, including llamas, ponies and small-scale, hormone-free meat.

On Flathead Lake, McGlynn has been instrumental in an experiment that has introduced new types of cherry varieties to selected local orchards. Also, McGlynn said she wants to start testing the viability of growing certain grapes here.

“There’s big interest in trying cold-hardy grapes,” she said.

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