Young Farmers Find Success in Organic Vegetable Production

By Beacon Staff

Todd Ulizio and Rebecca Avrett-Ulizio can be sure of one thing as they enter their fourth season of certified organic vegetable production – farming is hard work. Extreme temperatures, harvest deadlines and wild Montana weather present many dynamic challenges to their farming operation. Still, the young couple, who run Ten Lakes Farm near Eureka, are excited to be ramping up for what they hope will be another successful growing season.

Todd and Rebecca had a few simple goals in mind when they started farming in 2008. “We wanted to focus on quality, nutrition and affordability”, says Todd, “and we wanted to be friendly and approachable, so establishing a relationship with our customers was really important for us.”

The best way to do that, the couple decided, was to adopt a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture approach to marketing. The CSA model, which is gaining in popularity all over the U.S. and in Montana, offers consumers the chance to buy a subscription or “farm share” from a farm of their choice. In return, subscribers receive a “box” of fresh, seasonal produce each week during the growing season.

Ten Lakes Farm attempts to differentiate their CSA from others by offering diversity in their farm shares, so customers are never inundated with one kind of produce each week. In addition, they strive to provide their subscribers with the highest quality vegetables. “Our CSA customers are our first priority,” says Rebecca. Ten Lakes CSA customers receive vegetables for a total of 21-to-22 weeks, starting mid-May and lasting until October. Farm shares are distributed at several drop-off points in the area, including Whitefish, West Glacier, Eureka and on the farm itself.

Early in the season, customers can expect an assortment of baby lettuce, spinach, mustard greens and arugula in their salad mix, as well as kale and green onions. As the season progresses, beets, baby carrots, summer squash, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower enter the scene. The warm weather crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers come next and are followed by an array of potato varieties, onions and other root veggies. This year, they will also be offering shares of eggs from their own flock, as a way to add value and convenience to their CSA.

With a desire to remain in northwestern Montana, Todd and Rebecca started Ten Lakes Farm after a long search for land in the area. They eventually found a landowner willing to lease them five acres on a Eureka-area ranch. In exchange for use of the land, Todd and Rebecca supply the owners with wholesome organic produce. Better still, they manage the leased land according to national organic standards. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Todd, “organic certification requires us to have a plan to increase long-term soil productivity and quality, so we improve the soil and manage weeds on an otherwise unused piece of land.”

As farmers and entrepreneurs, Todd and Rebecca are also active in passing on what they have learned. Every other year, Rebecca teaches the Organic Farming course at Flathead Valley Community College, and they have taken on a number of farm volunteers in the past. This year, they will have their first paid interns on the farm, a couple from Missouri who want to experience the farm life before embarking on their own similar business endeavor.

The summer months entail long workdays for this ambitious pair, but at the end of the day, they are happy to be young Montana farmers. “We love being able to provide our community with fresh, healthy food,” explains Todd, “I can’t think of a better job.”

Visit tenlakesfarm.com or call (406) 370-2890 for more information on how you can sign up for a share, or look for Ten Lakes Farm at the Tuesday Whitefish Farmers Market and at the Eureka Farmers Market on Wednesdays.

Heather Mason is the Cropping Systems Agronomist at Montana State University’s Northwestern Agricultural Research Center in Creston, MT. She can be reached at (406) 755-4303.