The farm-to-table movement is providing more opportunities for farmers in the Flathead, and better eating options for consumers

Story by Molly Priddy

Perhaps you first noticed it when you saw the green bumper sticker, asking in bold, capital letters, “Who’s Your Farmer?” Or maybe it was negotiating the traffic around a weekly farmers market, which has always been around but you’ve noticed is getting more popular.

Wherever the farm-to-table food movement caught your eye, it’s nearly impossible to discuss the culinary, agricultural, or sustainable without broaching the subject of where food comes from, how it is cultivated, and its levels of freshness and healthiness.

Across the country, farmers markets are increasing; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the national count of farmers markets listings in directories increased 1.5 percent from 2013 to 2014, with nearly 8,300 markets.

That’s a massive jump from 20 years prior, when there were only 1,755 listings in 1994. In the Flathead, which boasts rich soil but a short growing season, farmers are responding to the call for fresh, local food.

At the 13-acre Two Bear Farm in Whitefish, owners Rebecca and Todd Ulizio knew there was a demand for their organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm shares, which provide a direct relationship between consumers and farmers with a weekly selection of crops, and increased production to accommodate.

It wasn’t enough.

“This year we did 200 CSA shares up from 150,” Todd said. “We expanded by 25 percent and still sold out before the start. So I think that’s more a sign that demand is strong.”

CSA shares and farmers market stalls provide plenty of interaction with customers, he said, and they get to know the people growing their food and can ask questions about its origins.

Sarah and John Harding with Buggy Road Farm in Whitefish

Sarah and John Harding with Buggy Road Farm in Whitefish

“I think nationally there’s a movement, of people wanting more knowledge about food and where it comes from,” he said. “We have a lot of CSA members who are young parents with young children. I mean, that’s exciting to see. When kids are excited about vegetables, which is not a common thing, that’s pretty cool.”

The demand for local produce in the Flathead is high, but the short growing season can hamper the supply. This has provided the impetus for growers to devise new means of providing the green freshness sought in the gray winters, such as the work happening at Buggy Road Farm near Whitefish.

There, Sarah and John Harding are constantly sprouting baby vegetables, plucked early on in their lives to become microgreens, aged between 10 days and two weeks old.

“If you let them go further, they turn into baby greens,” John said.

They may be small, but these tiny veggies pack a punch with flavor and nutrition. They’ve gotten so popular that the Hardings, who started at the Whitefish Farmers Market four seasons ago, sell the microgreens to an extensive list of local restaurants, including Tupelo Grille, Café Kandahar, Three Forks Grille, Truby’s, Montana Coffee Traders, and other eateries.

The Hardings also sell their microgreens and duck eggs at Third Street Market and Mountain Valley Foods.

“We’re passionate about growing, so we’re trying to figure out how we can do this year-round with such a short growing season,” John said. “Microgreens are something we can grow in our greenhouse all year.”

Sarah Harding said the varieties for microgreens range from sweet to spicy, with mild mixes featuring broccoli, kales, pea shoots, cabbages, and other veggies, and the spicy mix with arugala, various mustards – including wasabi – and radishes.

The microgreens are also available in shoulder-season CSA shares, she said, which started this year on March 20 and last for eight weeks.

John Harding harvests micro greens at Buggy Road Farm

John Harding harvests micro greens at Buggy Road Farm

“I learned about microgreens and was just so excited,” she said. “We’ve been trying for so long to find a way to make a living on our land. Farming is this crazy drive. We don’t even know why. It’s just something we have to do. We just have to figure out a way to make it work, and we are just trying to keep growing.”

Between Whitefish and Columbia Falls, Mark Winchel is also figuring out how to keep fresh, local vegetables available all year, though his methods involve some fishy characters.

Winchel is testing out sustainable aquaponics, which combines the traditional aquaculture of raising fish and the hydroponic practice of growing plants in a closed-loop system with water fertilized by fish used to feed vertical towers of leafy greens. The plants – and their resident worms – then cleanse the water in return for the fish.

The idea is to be able to provide these rapidly growing plants year-round for individuals and restaurants, and Winchel said there is plenty of interest. He hopes to have a new, 100-by-40-foot greenhouse up in September, for more plant space.

Farming and agriculture are engrained in the history of the valley, and Todd said he is looking forward to seeing how that tradition continues to evolve as more people demand fresher food that didn’t have to ride hundreds of miles on a truck to get to the grocery store shelves.

Two Bear Farm might be at its production limits for the time being, he said, but that only means more people can get involved.

“We’ve always said it leaves room for another farm,” he said. “There’s more demand than we can supply.”