Life Cycles

The Arnones are known for cycling talent and efficient living, and now the east Flathead Valley family has found a new way to live off the land through hemp

By Molly Priddy
Joe Arnone feeds the hemp plants at his family’s farm in the Flathead’s east valley. Craig Moore | Flathead Living

The sun hadn’t yet spilled over the mountains hemming in east Flathead Valley, and Joe Arnone was out in a field clad in his cycling clothes, a backpack of plant food and water on his back, feeding his hemp.

Joe had ridden 25 miles from his home in Kalispell to his parents’ home and farm at the foothills of the Swan Range, a place he knows as well as he knows himself.

It was here that he and his four siblings ran wild as children, with parents who believed in self-sufficiency and pursuing passions, and it is here that the Flathead Valley will have one of its first certified hemp farms since cultivation of the plant was outlawed in 1937.

Hemp doesn’t get you high if you smoke it, but it can help you live better if you consume it, Joe believes. As a world-class cyclist and lifetime athlete, Joe knew hemp had a wide range of uses, from fabric to building materials, but he was interested in the potential of the perfect protein mixed along with an oil that soothes aches and pain. That’s why he’s started Glacier Hemp.

“Our main motivation is to feed the world. Hemp is a complete protein with nine amino acids,” Joe said as he fed the nascent plants an organic silicon mixture. “In Montana, we’re as pristine as you can get, and California has pesticides in everything they grow. Maybe Montana becomes the breadbasket of the country.”

The sunrise meets Joe Arnone as he grows the first plants for his new business, Glacier Hemp. Craig Moore | Flathead Living

The Arnone family planted their roots in the Flathead in 1965, one year after the massive 100-year flood. Land was as cheap as it was beautiful, and Tom and Patricia “Pat” Arnone knew they’d found their getaway.

He’d always wanted to live on an island, ever since he was a child, but 10 acres at the base of the mountains with a creek running through it was just as good. They had five kids — Mary, Joseph, Christopher, Patrick, and Tom — and were living in Spokane where Tom was stationed with the U.S. Air Force.

They would take two-week trips to the property when Tom had leave and could decompress from the pressures of serving as a bomber pilot during the Cold War. Soon after the first land purchase, they bought another 40 acres nearby, along with the shell of a house.

When Tom got unexpected orders to go to Thailand just months before his retirement in 1972, Pat gathered up her children and moved to their Montana property on her own.

“Patty came over here with five kids and no running water,” Tom said, sitting in his garage, full of motorcycles for tinkering. “We did work on the house as the money came in, but it’s still not finished.”

Neither of the Arnone parents had lived on farms before; she was from Southern California, while he hailed from the Bronx in New York City.

“Some of Tom’s friends from the Air Force said, ‘You’re going to Montana to live where? The Tom we know is going to live on a farm?’”

There was a steep learning curve, but the family dove in. They got goats and chickens, beef cattle, a heifer named Rosa who they milked for a decade, and grew a huge garden to feed the family.

They tried to be as self-sufficient as possible, reading how-to books on making a life out of the land (even if, as Tom says, the “Whole Earth Catalog” was written for “hippies”). Pat milked the cow in the morning and the boys milked it at night, providing plenty of dairy for the family.

Pat bought a book on how to make cheese, and after Tom made her a press, soon she was making her own cheese, wrapping it in cheesecloth, then dipping that in paraffin for storage.

“I didn’t buy cheese for a lot of years,” Pat said.

The kids took on this approach to life as well. Animals raised and sold through 4H paid for their ski passes, and turning 12 meant joining in on the hunt for venison and elk. Pat remembers sending her kids out the door on bright summer mornings and not seeing them until they returned in the evening after a day of scaling mountains.

After Tom retired from the Air Force in 1972, he got into construction and wound up as an electrician. He had a knack for fixing and building things, with experience in metal work, woodworking, gunsmithing, even strip-canoe building. So when Joe got into cycling, Tom was ready.

Tom Arnone likes to tinker on all kinds of bikes, like the motorcycles in his garage. Craig Moore | Flathead Living

Custom bike frames are often essential to be competitive in the sport, and are prohibitively expensive.

“I used to build all his bike frames,” Tom said. “They had a book on bike-frame building, so I bought it and said I’d build one for me as a test.”

A cyclist himself, Tom said he and Patty loved the freedom their bicycles offered, and the couple joined a local Tuesday night race league and entered triathlons. Joe took the love for cycling a little further: When he first started biking, a teenage Joe rode from his home to San Francisco in 21 days.

“That was my first foray into distance biking,” Joe said.

Joe got into racing, eschewing high school cross-country running. After graduating from Flathead High School and then Montana State University, Joe went into the Air Force in 1986 for pilot training, following his father’s footsteps.

When he left, his bike stayed behind, and Tom started riding it, Pat said. He got attached, and decided to build Joe a new bike. Then he built bikes for Pat and the rest of the kids, and occasionally local cyclists trying to get their start.

Eventually, Joe ended up stationed in Columbus, Mississippi as a T-38 flight instructor. While he was there, he met the state champion cyclist of Mississippi while pursuing racing, and the champ took Joe under his wing. The next few years shaped him, Joe said.

“It was brutal,” Joe said. “I was learning what and how to eat and how to train. I bonked [so depleted of glycogen that the body collapses] 1,000 times in three years.”

But Joe learned how to become a top-level cyclist through this adversity, and when he left Mississippi for the Air Force Academy in 1991 to be an instructor pilot, he exploded onto the cycling scene in the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado Springs, Colorado is home to a velodrome, an oval cycling track with steeply banked walls. Bikes used for this fast-paced racing aren’t even equipped with brakes. It was everything Joe had dreamed of, as far as intensity goes.

When Tom learned that Joe was headed to Colorado Springs, he began work on custom racing bike frame for the specialized track.

“Velodrome bikes are custom, and it’s very expensive to find a frame to fit his body,” Tom said.

From that point forward, father and son worked on perfecting the frame and handlebars to get the least amount of wind resistance. Joe said a major cycling company noticed his father’s aerodynamic handlebar design at one of his races, and Tom gave them his blueprints.

Joe became the Colorado Time Trial Champion in 1991, and took second place at the 1992 Olympic trials (the first-place finisher, he said, went on to the Games). He competed in the Olympic trials again in 1996, and then for years in the Military World Cycling Championships, which took him to Europe six times to race. The last really big ride he completed was a cross-country race with an all-military cycling team of his buddies who biked across America in five-and-a-half days.

“I got to be a pilot and I got to race my bike around the world,” Joe said.

Joe’s wife, Mandy Arnone, a radiation oncology nurse, provided integral support during the cross-country ride, he said. The couple met in Montana and married in 2009, combining her two children and Joe’s son from another marriage into a family. Mandy likes to cycle, too, and the couple still hits the road together, maybe a lazy afternoon ride to Bigfork for a beer.

Throughout his cycling career, Joe kept searching for the best ways to eat and train, and had considered hemp as a plant with incredible potential. Then his brother Patrick Arnone taught him about CBD oil.  

Joe and Mandy Arnone. Craig Moore | Flathead Living

In 1937, fears over a popular new drug led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which made possession of hemp or its cannabis cousin, marijuana, illegal. All cannabis plants contain Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical that gives marijuana users their high. While some cannabis plants can have up to 30 percent THC content, industrial hemp usually has about 0.3 percent THC.

This difference didn’t matter back in the ‘30s when the federal government lumped all the plants together as dangerous. Despite being one of the first plants from which ancient humans derived fibers for cloth and rope, industrial hemp was taken out of the country’s agricultural lineup.

Nearly 80 years later, in 2014, the federal Farm Bill gave states the right to develop research pilot programs into the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp. Montana started one such program, and by 2017, 14 certified growers had 550 acres of hemp. In 2018, there were 60 certified growers on nearly 13,000 acres, many celebrating their first crops.

Joe said he wouldn’t be surprised if Montana ended up with hundreds of thousands of acres of industrial hemp growing perfectly and quickly on the state’s eastern, sun-baked farmlands. The plant is extremely versatile, and can be used for flour and other grain products, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, industrial applications such as lubricants, animal bedding, building materials, textile products, and bio-composite materials.

Another use for the product — cannabinoid oil, also called CBD — is Joe’s first focus with Glacier Hemp. His brother Patrick has operated a CBD business in Colorado for years, giving Joe the knowledge and a solid launching point for his own business.

CBD oil is quickly gaining popularity across the United States as marijuana legalization continues in individual states. The oil doesn’t give the THC high of marijuana, but is instead regularly used for medical purposes and pain relief, including the treatment of multiple sclerosis pain.

“I take the CBD and Patty takes it,” Tom said. “We like it.”

Joe, realizing the various benefits from the plant, got to work on Glacier Hemp. His plants started in a greenhouse, then moved to the small field just outside Tom’s garage. The plan is to grow it and send it to a central processing facility in Great Falls, where it can be dried, frozen, and the oils extracted. The potential of this plant is enormous, Joe said, with the flower used for CBD oil, the seeds for protein powder, and the rest of the plant for fiber.

“We’re starting way behind the curve in Montana,” Joe said. “It could revamp the economy.”

The natural, organic silicon (not to be confused with the rubbery, synthetic derivation silicone) plant-food mixture he uses on his fledgling hemp plants is specific as well, he said, because most soil is already depleted of this natural fertilizer. It’s also great for athletes, he said, because the silicon absorbs ammonia, which is a byproduct that causes muscle soreness after working out. Absorbing ammonia also means chickens fed with this additive have better-smelling coops and harder eggshells, Joe said.

“It’s good for plants and animals and you,” he said.

“Joe and I have worked together since he was 3 years old, ever since he could hold a board,” Tom said, beating the heat of summer and relaxing in his garage.

Joe watered the hemp while Tom observed. Cycling has cooled to a hobby for the family, but that doesn’t stop them from helping other cyclists realize their dreams. The Arnone farm is situated on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and Tom and Pat regularly host cyclists from around the world on their property.

“We’ve met people from all over the world and we give them a cold beer,” Tom said.

As for his considerations about the transformation of an empty field into a hemp crop, Tom goes back to basics on efficiency and using the soil to sustain his family.

“It’s a good use for the land, otherwise we’d rent it for horse pasture,” he said.

And under the hot summer sun, the hemp continued to grow.

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley.