Thursday, July 7, 2011


Approach Missoula, Montana, from the east and you experience the thrill of watching the mountains emerge in the west as you cross the high, open plains.  This thriving city of about 67,000 on the banks of the Clark Fork River is the home of the University of Montana.  From their campus, travel 2.5 miles or so north into the beautiful Rattlesnake Valley.  See lovely level fields ringed by even lovelier mountains. 

Notice the small “PEAS Farm" sign.  Enter the parking lot beside the little straw-bale barn and see the rich fields, two to the north and two to the south, filled with lettuce, greens, strawberries, and radishes ready to harvest, and with all manner of other plants (squash, pumpkin, corn, etc.) lustily growing in preparation for a later harvest.  If it were the morning that we were there, you might notice us working alongside a dozen or more young men and women, weeding these 10 acres of organically-farmed fields.  You would feel their enthusiasm, their sense of community, and their vision for a healthier way to feed America and the world.  PEAS stands for “Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society,” a program of study within the University’s Environmental Studies Department
Josh Slotnick and Jason Mandala

We spoke with Josh Slotnick, Lecturer for Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, and PEAS Farm founder and Director. Josh told us that the idea for the PEAS Farm (and the other farms under the umbrella of Garden City Harvest) came in 1996, when a coalition of far-thinking Missoulians came together to address a broad set of intersecting needs:
  • Some were anticipating the effects of the Republican Contract with America, specifically the changes in the welfare laws that limited who could receive government assistance and for how long.  This would vastly increase the number of people in need of emergency food assistance.  Could that food be healthy and include adequate fresh seasonal produce?
  • Simultaneously, others were seeing a need to teach students at all levels, from pre-school through graduate school, about gardening and healthy eating.  Do we know where our food comes from, what's healthy, and how to produce it?
  • And still others were alarmed by statistics showing that local farming could not currently feed the community.   More than 85% of the food dollars spent in the state of Montana go for food produced and trucked from elsewhere, and the average age of farmers is increasing (as of 2007, the average age of a farmer in Montana is 58).  Could these trends be reversed and local farming again be seen as a community resource, bringing food security and better health to everyone? 
All these needs are addressed at the PEAS Farm. 
Interns operate the farm throughout the year, learning to farm organically, and taking that knowledge with them when they leave the University.   Of the interns we worked with, at least one was actively looking to begin his own farm, one was hoping to take over his father’s farm, others mentioned careers in soil science or international sustainable agriculture, and all were at least destined to be acutely aware of what they eat and where it comes from. 

In addition, interns learn the value of working together on humble tasks, solving problems as a team, and serving their community.  Some of the produce is sold as shares in the farm’s Community-Supported Agriculture program or mobile farmer’s markets.  Some is used each day by two interns who prepare a hearty lunch for the crew.  The remainder is donated directly to the Missoula Food Bank) and the Poverello Center, which distribute it free of charge to those in need.

It’s not just the interns who demonstrate the priority that the PEAS Farm gives to education.   The Farm also operates an extensive education program for kids in preschool through high school.  Jason Mandala, Community Education Director, said that last year the Farm brought over 2500 children here for field trips.  Many children are amazed to find out where their food comes from before it gets to the grocery stores.   Jason lets the kids pick and taste whatever is ripe; he excites them about healthy eating and says he’s more successful than most parents are at getting their kids to eat vegetables.  He told us one story about a kid coming back to the Farm for a second trip and asking hopefully, “Are we going to eat kale today?”  Parents tell him, “We’re now eating this [fresh produce item] because our child said she wanted it.”  And Josh said that he overheard a girl at the farmer’s market telling her mother, “If you have a bad day, eat kale.”

Will the PEAS farm help end hunger in America?  Josh thinks it’s a piece of the puzzle, but that much more is needed.  We need communities in which everyone can earn a living.   And we need education and cultural change.  "You can eat well on little money.  But you can’t do it on highly processed, cheap food." 

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