Lifeline Farm: the Case of Organic Family Farm in Montana

Payong Srithong,  Professional Fellow in Economic Empowerment Exchange Program

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According to the “2011 Certified Organic Production Survey”, there are 9,140 certified organic farms in the United States with 8,719 farms and 2,027,212 acres of crop land; and 3,499 farms and 1,621,684 acres for pastureland/rangeland. Total organic product sales in 2011 were $ 3,531 million.  Number of farmers in the USA is 2.2 million, which is less than 1 % of total populations, while number of farms under organic management is just about 0.4 % of total farm households.

Based on the USDA’s 2007 family Farm Report, the vast majority of farms and ranches in the United States are family owned and operated. USDA classifies family farms as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation. Family farms exclude farms organized as nonfamily corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms with hired managers”.  Under this definition, the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2007 Census of Agriculture makes the following useful distinctions among these family farms, based initially on their gross annual sales:

  • Very large family farms (101,265) gross over $500,000
  • Large family farms (86,551) gross between $250,000 and $500,000
  • Small family farms (1,925,799) gross under $250,000.

In the past two weeks, I spent most of my fellowship on visiting several organic farms either within network of the Garden City Harvest or a few family farms in Montana. Although most or maybe all of the farms I visited may not be included in the statistics mentioned above, these farms are important to livelihood of the citizens and especially the quality of foods these farms produced for the local people and their contribution to quality of natural environment – soil, water, air, and biodiversity. There is one family farm which, in my point of view, shows the unique strength of organic family farm in the USA, or at least in the state of Montana which is worth to mention.

The Lifeline Farm

The Lifeline Farm belongs to Steve Elliot and his wife Luci Brieger. Originally from California, Steve and Luci started his small farm in the Bitter root valley in 1978, which might be the first farm in Montana under organic practices.  Steve told me that vast majority of people in Montana at that time did not know much about organic products.  “At that time we grew bulks of potato and, via local and regional distributors, we had to transport several lots of 1,500 – 2,000 pounds of potatoes to Oregon, California, New Mexico, and even to New York” he said.

In 1993, the family moved to the farm where it is nowadays in Victor, Montana about 37 miles south of Missoula. They have 3 children who are now in teenage.

Steve and Luci divide their 50- acre land into 3 components – 1/3 for hay for the animals, 1/3 for raising vast varieties of vegetables, and 1/3 fallow under nitrogen fixing alfalfa and clover as cover crops.  Major produce of the Lifeline Farm are cattle, sheep’s, vegetables and nursery plants of vegetables and flowers for other gardeners. It is difficult for most farmers in the USA to maintain such small farm as that of the Steve and Luci at profitable levels. Small farms gradually disappear from the rural scene. There is evidence of a trend toward concentration in agricultural production. A 2007 Census of Agriculture indicates that just 187,816 of the 2.2 million farms in USA accounted for 63% of sales of agricultural products.

Instead of selling products to conventional markets, Steve and Luci aim their production at local food markets. The growing awareness among consumers and local food distributors create opportunity for small-scale organic farmers throughout the country. Major sale channels are the Good Food store, farmers market, and community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme in which Steve collaborates with other 25 organic farmers to produce foods for 250 supporters in areas around Missoula. By doing so, they can plan production relevant to local demand so they need not to transport produces for hundreds or thousand miles to markets as before. Trust that consumers develop on the Lifeline Produces help them to sustain their farm and the whole family for decades.

Each year Steve and Luci usually open door for anyone who is interested in working and learning on their farm. This year, there are 2 apprentice labors working on their farms in exchange with food, accommodation and, most of all, knowledge and skills in organic farming they will learn from Steve and Luci.

“I enjoy working and living here with Steve and Luci” said Gabriel Doherty, a 22 year old apprentice who has stayed on the Lifeline Farm for a month.  Born in Missoula, Gabriel started to work and to learn what he wanted to know after he finished high school. He would like to have simple life and is interested in organic farming and dream of having his own farm one day. Although his farther, who is working with a railroad company in Missoula, does not agree with what Gabriel think, he does not prevent him from doing that. At the Lifeline farm, Gabriel starts working in the morning until 7 pm ranging from cleaning animal pens, to planting seeds and transplanting, weeding and several others according what to Steve and Luci tell him to do.

David Lau, 25, is another person who just came to the Lifeline Farm 2 days before my visit. David is interested in culinary although he earned a degree in Psychology.  His mother who is a doctor suggests him to learn more about organic farming for the system usually produces quality foods to consumers. Good foods come from good produces.  Both David and Gabriel earn $ 30 per day and both plan to stay until the end of growing season in November and may come back again next year. Although the income given is not much, knowledge and skills they have learned from working with Steve and Luci are worth most.

As average age of American farmers is getting older but many family operations do not have a next generation skilled in or willing to continue farming.  These two young apprentices are the wind that will maintain the breath of American family farms into the future.

 

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