There was still snow covering the three acres that make up Raven Ridge Farm, but Nathan Christianson and Cassady Daley could only think about the frozen ground beneath, what it has to offer, and the ideas they have to enrich it.
Better soil means better organic crops, and better crops mean more business for this small farm east of Kalispell. It’s a normal thought process for farmers in the relative downtime of winter, but for these partners — in life and in business — the earth they’ve worked for several years now is no longer leased.
The ground is now theirs, as much as land can belong to anyone.
“We own the land and we’re going into our third season of owning the business,” Daley, 25, said. “It’s a huge relief for us because there’s a lot of security with knowing we can put more time and energy into building our soil and its structure.”
“We were farming with restraint because there were decisions we couldn’t make just as leasers,” Christianson, 26, said. “Now that we’ve purchased the property, we can look forward to long-term goals and what we want the farm to be five years from now.”
Owning the land means they can really go for it, the couple said, which will be welcome news to the farm’s CSA clients. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and usually translates to people paying farmers for a weekly pickup of fresh vegetables, either at a farmers market or at the farm itself.
The CSA model has caught on in the Flathead, where a number of farms offer these subscriptions to help pay for the seeds and other costs that crop up during the winter. It’s also popular with people who like the farm-to-table movement, because it’s a simple way to pay local producers for fresh vegetables grown right here.
Daley and Christianson like the effect the CSA shares have on their farm, because it helps people connect to their food in a more meaningful way.
“We grow food right next to where people pick up their food,” Daley said.
“They’re paying us in the spring and the winter,” Christianson added, “so they are involved quite a bit in our farm, and we like that. Ninety percent of our CSA members pick up on the farm and that means a lot to us.”
As first-generation farmers, Daley and Christianson came to agriculture with ideas of what they’d like to do, but they didn’t have the background or knowhow that kids who grew up on a farm have.
Daley, originally from Colorado, studied sustainable foods at Montana State University in Bozeman and thought she’d like to join the Peace Corps, but after traveling abroad, she realized she wanted to cultivate community and be a part of it afterward. She didn’t want to build something and then leave.
Farming in the Flathead fit the bill for Daley. It also called to Christianson, a Texan who moved here and worked on Two Bear Farm for a couple of seasons before shifting to Raven Ridge. Both enjoy endurance sports, and both loved working the land; it was only a matter of time before the couple ended up together.
Daley worked at Raven Ridge Farm for a year before she started managing it. Eventually, the couple purchased the business and was leasing the land until they decided to buy it, and got creative with financing the venture.
“We offered our CSA members an opportunity to invest and help us out with purchasing the property,” Daley said. “It was a multi-year share, either a full share for two years or a partial share for three years. We had 15 members who committed to that investment. [Each share] was $1,000 and that was a huge help in letting us buy the property and letting us continue our farm business and growing. It meant a lot to us that people were willing to invest in our local economy like that.”
Now that the land is theirs to do with as they wish, the couple hopes to slowly expand the farm’s potential. Guarded faithfully by their farm dog Willa, the couple is harvesting crops from 1.5 acres, and they have 120 garden beds each 100 feet. They plan on using 80 to 90 of those this year in production, and in five years, they’d like to have more of them fully contributing.
They’re adding more infrastructure now that they own the land, such as more hoop houses to help extend a short growing season. They’d also like to be able to grow greens into the winter in a greenhouse.
“Most of our income is made during the four-month block of summer. We want to be able to grow food longer into winter,” Christianson said.
The future also includes plenty of focus on soil quality. Raven Ridge Farm earned its organic certification last year, and the owners are required to understand what makes the soil healthy and balanced.
They also want to try to make sure their lives are healthy and balanced, too. Farming is constant work — there’s always something that could be done. But as first-generation farmers, Daley and Christianson want to figure out a way to have a farm and still have time and energy for their personal lives.
It’s the biggest question they face now as landowners.
“Our goal is to grow more food but also increase our quality of life. How can we balance farming and life? That’s a huge part of what we’re trying to figure out now,” Daley said. “Being young, we feel fortunate that we have the time to grow slowly and to implement things with caution a little bit at a time. While we do want to expand, we care more about making things more efficient. The whole small farm movement is about doing more with less. We really want to focus on precision.”
For more information on Raven Ridge Farm, visit www.growravenridge.com.
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