County Rail Farm in Dixon enters its fourth year of growing organic produce

WELL BY MOLLY PRIDDY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG LINDSTROM
It’s an interesting location, suitable for a new farm with modest organic ambitions, a marriage of old traditions and the new, connected world.

For County Rail Farm owners Margaret De Bona and Tracy Potter-Fins, it wasn’t so much that they selected the land as the land reached out and grabbed them, offering an opportunity to slide seamlessly into the agriculture life in Western Montana.

On a Sunday in August, the farm’s rest day after the busy pace of the Saturday farmers market in Missoula, Tracy, Margaret and Coda – a blue heeler and English shepherd mix – had an easy start to the day, showing visitors around the farm.

Tracy, 27, hails from Idaho and Margaret, 30, from North Carolina, though neither had a background in agriculture before starting County Rail, other than working on a large farm in New York.

They were both living in the Hudson Valley when Tracy felt the age-old pull to move closer to home.

“We decided to move west and start a farm,” Margaret said.

On the way back to Idaho, they stopped in Missoula, and stayed with friends in Moiese, near the National Bison Range. They met Steve Dagger, who was married to Jane Kile, one of the pioneers of Montana’s sustainable organic farming movement.

Jane died in 2010 after a battle with ovarian cancer, and Steve was looking for someone to lease the Dixon farmland.

“He liked what we had to say” about their farming philosophy, Tracy said, and by November 2010, they were planting their garlic and started full-time farming in February and March of 2011.

Farm-Life-2

County Rail Farm in Dixon.

Eventually, the farm would bloom into producing salad greens, arugula, artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, shallots, basil, broccoli, beets, carrots, onions, and much more.

Farming is one of Montana’s oldest and deeply rooted traditions, when people learn the rhythms and moods of the environment to coax enough food from the soil to feed family and friends.

Tracy and Margaret are in their fourth year of taking up the yolk of that tradition, having produced thousands of pounds  of organic produce from their farm.

There’s a noticeable difference between their chosen farm life and the lives of those born into it; mornings aren’t excruciatingly early, work goes on until the early evening, and the women have made a concerted effort to have lives outside of the County Rail boundaries, even if that just means going dancing once a week or bartering fresh goat cheese for banjo lessons.

“We’re figuring out how not to burn out, how to make this sustainable,” Tracy said. “We work really hard to keep our job something that we enjoy.”

In Montana, there were nearly 58.8 million acres of farmland in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that land, just over 4 million acres are farms with women as the primary operators.

County Rail is part of an even smaller group when taking into account the relative newness of the farm and its organic status. But Tracy and Margaret aren’t isolated; they are part of a growing community of organic farmers, and stay connected through various organizations, such as the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and the Montana Sustainable Growers Union.

They grow the produce they intend to sell on about an acre of the leased land, which churned out more than 10,000 pounds of veggies last year. Goats must be milked each morning, with some of that milk ending up as chevre or feta cheese, and the herd got big enough for Tracy to learn how to slaughter and preserve the animals as well.

Organic farming presents unique challenges, like figuring out how fertilize or wage war on the bugs and moths in the crops without synthetic herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, or fertilizers. County Rail uses a roaming chicken coop that allows the fowl to peck and pluck tasty insects all over the farm, and they use other bugs to attack the invading insect armies.

There’s a steep learning curve that comes with starting a farm, both said, and not just with the agricultural aspects.

“It’s not just that we’ve learned to be farmers,” Margaret said. “It’s that we also learned to be business owners.”

This includes understanding their own limitations. The County Rail CSA program, which allowed people to sign up for weekly deliveries of fresh produce, was popular for the first three years of the farm, but it put a strain on the farm, so Tracy and Margaret decided to axe it.

“It’s not an income decision,” Tracy said. “It was a time and energy decision.”

Now, County Rail offers a market-share program, which has people sign up and pay a bulk price in January and February, and then they have that amount as credit when the spring and summer farmers markets roll around.

Farm Life

Margaret De Bona gives a tour of County Rail Farm in Dixon.

It’s a win-win relationship, the farmers said, because it helps them purchase seed and equipment in the financially dry season, and the participants can pick out the kinds of produce they want instead of receiving a mystery box each week.

Along with understanding the business side of farming, they’ve also had to become botanists, woodworkers, mechanics, butchers, artists and more.

“We have to do it all,” Margaret said.

Moving onto already-established farmland helped the duo start, and they’ve turned a profit each year they’ve been in business. But clearly, County Rail Farm is about more than money. Farming is a way of life that is harsh and beautiful, trying and rewarding, and everything and nothing Tracy and Margaret expected it to be.

“It’s great being your own boss, being close to your food, and feeding friends and family,” Tracy said. “We’re really experiencing our lives, instead of working to live.”

For more information, visit www.countyrailfarm.com