Missoula is known as the Garden City, and when Todd and I were there from mid-July through mid-August, we had the pleasure of meeting several people who are helping to rebuild Missoula’s capacity to feed the region.
Not that people in Missoula ever stopped gardening … it’s just that most food in western Montana comes from out of state now. Garden City Harvest (GCH), which was founded in 1996, aims to change that by taking the idea of community-supported agriculture (CSA) and turning it on its head. In the GCH model, agriculture builds community, especially among low-income people who may not have access to fresh, healthy food.
UM FLAT: Kate Sheridan
Our first interview was with Kate Sheridan, who agreed to be interviewed at the UM FLAT house. She told us about the students who contribute their skills to live sustainably at UM FLAT; this old blog post has a lot of pictures from that house, garage, and garden, and Todd recently finished editing a UM FLAT video. We didn’t know it at the time, but she works for GCH as a community garden assistant at Orchard Gardens. If you’re driving north past the big-box development on Reserve Road, you’ll see a large red building: that is homeWORD’s affordable housing development Orchard Gardens, next to a community garden and farm managed by GCH.
Garden City Harvest: Jean Zosel
It was also the site of our third interview, with Jean Zosel, GCH’s executive director since April. Zosel has deep roots in Missoula: she spent 31 years at a local TV station, working her way up to station manager, as well as volunteering on various boards and coaching kids’ soccer. She said the opportunity to work with children drew her to apply for the job at Garden City Harvest, even though she’s not an expert gardener. When she interviewed for the job of GCH’s executive director, she asked if its model existed anywhere else and was told that pieces of it existed in other places.
Certainly, Denver Urban Gardens and the Growhaus have similar goals, and community gardens are sprouting up all over the metro area, many of them affiliated with churches or low-income housing, but I am not aware of any combined farms/community gardens in the Denver-Boulder area. (See the links at the end of this article for some of the “pieces” in the Boulder-Denver area.)
Each of GCH’s farms and community gardens has unique elements and programs. Zosel asked us to meet her at Orchard Gardens because of the site’s 4 handicapped-accessible beds, designed for people in wheelchairs or those with back problems who wish to garden without bending over or kneeling too much. I was impressed by the site’s economical layout, with a farm on one side of the greenhouse and community garden beds on the other. (In the picture above, you’re looking at housing units through the handicapped-accessible beds. More plots are to the right, and the greenhouse and farm are even farther off the right-hand side of this photo.) But my favorite part was the garden plotted especially for children, which gives them their own magical place but also keeps the youngest from doing any damage in the main garden. Here is the entrance to the children’s garden at Orchard Gardens: only young gardeners and the farm director may enter. In addition to offering children’s classes in cooking and gardening, GCH also sponsors a market in which kids sell vegetables to low-income seniors. Zosel said the two generations create a “great dynamic” together.
PEAS Farm: Josh Slotnick
The education and contributions of young people was a thread that ran through all three interviews. Like Zosel, PEAS Farm director Josh Slotnick spoke of how working on the farm changes students: “My favorite thing about [PEAS Farm] is watching what happens to the students through the summer,” watching them “fall in love with each other” and form a “tribe.” (Though this camaraderie may break down for the student tasked with preparing lunch from food harvested that morning. According to one intern, the cooks get into the kitchen and “freak out” because the happiness of 20 people depends on them.)
Along with some “non-profiteers” and city staff, Slotnick founded the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) at the University of Montana in 1996. PEAS Farm began producing crops soon after and moved to its current site in Rattlesnake Canyon (in northeastern Missoula) in 2001.
We arrived at 8 am one Monday morning in late July 2011 and watched him gather the students together at the barn (where some crops are dried, lunch is prepared, and the caretaker lives) and discuss which crops needed to be harvested. One by one the students chose a crop to harvest, and after the college students/interns signed our model releases, they fanned out into the fields. (See the link at the end of this article to more pictures on Flickr.)
Some high school students work at the farm as part of the Youth Harvest Project, which “integrates therapy with work and education about all aspects of farm operation” (quote from the GCH website). We didn’t film them because they were underage. Both Zosel and Slotnick emphasized that GCH provides opportunities for teens and adults to heal themselves through farm work or, as one person said, “find your place in the world.” Later, one intern at the farm led a group of children on a tour, and students from Southeast Asia showed up, wanting to know why people would choose to farm if they didn’t have to.
It was a busy, happy, sunny place. (Have I mentioned how bright the Missoula sun is?) Farm caretaker Katharine Roggeveen said, “There is no such thing as silence on the farm,” though at night, after everyone has left, it feels calm to her. Here she is harvesting carrots. From watching her and Josh and Lhotse dig them up, I learned that carrots, unlike other vegetables such as cabbage, are harvested all at once. It’s not really possible to take the small carrots and shove them back into the ground (though it sounds like something I would try. But then, I’ve never grown a decent carrot).
As far as I could gather, PEAS Farm is the oldest of the 4 Garden City Harvest farms, and at 10 acres the largest. All the farm labor is provided by University of Montana students taking the PEAS internship, as well as GCH staff, and the veggies (and eggs and pork, I assume) go to CSA shares or to the food bank. That collaborative model pertains at all the gardens and farms managed by GCH.
To sum up, in addition to providing small garden plots in which Missoulians can grow their own produce, GCH also distributes tens of thousands of tons of food to local food banks, educates teens and adults in farm production, and provides therapy via agriculture. Slotnick and Zosel represent opposite ends of the GCH spectrum: he is one of the founders, and she has taken up the reins of the organization after years of involvement in the Missoula community. But I think he would agree with her comment that “GCH does some of the most important work in the city of Missoula.”
More pictures of PEAS Farm and Orchard Gardens can be found on Flickr. Pictures from UM FLAT are in the blog post linked to above.
The links just below will give you an idea of what’s going on in Denver and Boulder and points surrounding, but they are by no means comprehensive.
Denver Urban Gardens
Growhaus. Check out the “Partners” page under “About Us.”
Transition Colorado and Reskilling
Grow Local Colorado
Growing Gardens of Boulder County
Colorado Building Farmers