Farming Through Philanthropy

By Beacon Staff

Todd and Rebecca Ulizio have been growing more than just fresh, organic vegetables on their small farm near Eureka. They’ve been growing the farm itself.

When the couple started Ten Lakes Farm in 2008, they had demand for two-dozen farm shares, serving residents between Eureka and Whitefish through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. By their fifth growing season, they were distributing 150 shares — weekly food boxes brimming with vegetables, with each customer receiving about 21 weeks of produce, while also peddling their leafy wares at the Whitefish Farmers Market.

That capped the growing capacity of their six-acre plot, and while they’ve wanted to drive up production it wasn’t going to be possible at the Ten Lakes location.

“We’ve been holding steady since then,” Todd says. “We just couldn’t expand past that level.”

“We outgrew the farm probably two years ago, maybe three,” says Rebecca.

Enter Whitefish venture capitalist and philanthropist Michael Goguen, who through a serendipitous set of circumstances partnered with the young couple to increase their growing capacity six-fold while also buffering his Two Bear Ranch near Whitefish from development.

It began with a letter.

With some reservation, Todd wrote Goguen, whose streak of philanthropy has transformed the community, and explained Ten Lakes Farm’s predicament, assuming that he had, at best, a shot in the dark at receiving a reply.

But Goguen faced a predicament of his own as the 65-acre hobby farm adjacent to his Two Bear Ranch along the Stillwater River was listed for sale, and he feared that development would mar the wide-open landscape and idyllic setting.

He invested in the Ulizios and Ten Lakes Farm, the name of which they’ve changed to Two Bear Farm. Instead of living in a 500-square-foot straw-bale cabin more than a mile away from Ten Lakes, they now live directly on the Two Bear property, which is closer to their prime market, and are surrounded by 35 acres of agricultural farmland, a greenhouse and a cluster of high tunnels.

When Goguen agreed to finance the expansion, he told the Ulizios to build according to a 10-year plan, trusting their judgment and their commitment to being good stewards.

“He made a philanthropic donation to the community,” Todd said. “He’s giving us the opportunity to run our business, which hasn’t changed at all, but he plugged us in with a foundation and the infrastructure.”

“There is no way we could have done this ourselves,” he added.

Furnishing the Ulizios with the new and improved farm is just Goguen’s latest contribution to the Flathead Valley.

To date, Goguen has spent more than $10 million in personal funds on an expansive state trust land plan that has spawned the popular Whitefish Trail. Millions more of his dollars have poured into an assortment of local causes and community investments, particularly in Whitefish.

For the Ulizios, who have no interest in distributing outside of the valley, and believe they’re providing a valuable service to local communities by selling organic food, Goguen’s investment will see healthy returns. The couple grows carrots for the Whitefish schools as part of the Farm to School program, and offers apprenticeships to promote organic farming among a younger set of farmers.

“We want to get more healthy food in the community and encourage other young farmers. There was no way we could have done that at the other farm,” Rebecca said.

Roughly 95 percent of their business is in the north Flathead Valley, with 75 percent of that coming from the CSA program and 20 percent at the Whitefish Farmers Market. They also distribute wholesale to the Belton Chalet in West Glacier and Pescado Blanco in Whitefish.

“The idea of moving farther away from our community didn’t appeal to us,” Todd said. “We want to have a relationship with the communities we serve.”

The CSA program allows small farmers to market their products directly to customers without interference by the usual middlemen — sales, marketing, distribution — with the added benefit of the customer getting to “know their farmer.”

The CSA enrollment period began Jan. 1 with an early-bird special that continues through March 15 and offers a discounted price. Weekly distribution of the food boxes begins around mid-May.

“Right now it’s 100 percent potential. But it’s going to be great,” Todd said.

Sign up for the CSA program at twobearfarm.com.

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