She might be wearing muddly overalls, or he could be sporting a crisp button-down shirt
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy MohlerAs the contours of agricultural geography shift dramatically, so do farmers’ conceptual landscapes. Vast multi-thousand-acre farms have never been as prevalent in the Flathead as in the grain heartland of Central and Eastern Montana, yet, even starting with this smaller scale, local farms are shrinking and specializing. Producers are reacting to the strains of population growth and dwindling open spaces, as well as evolving consumer tastes and societal priorities. A significant percentage of the valley’s farmland is leased, much of it through small-acreage operations. But what our farms lack in size, they make up for many times over in diversity: grapes, canola, aronia, yaks, cherries, all sorts of veggies, mini steers and mini llamas and microgreens, to name a few.
By the time growers replant their fields to accommodate an emerging market, when they awake before dawn the next morning, consumers might already be clamoring for a new “crop of the day.” Adaptation is essential. Small organic farms are sprouting up each year, rising to meet an insatiable and seemingly ever-growing appetite for local foods. Larger, traditional operations are also venturing into previously unknown markets, and leaving no stone unturned as they seek the smartest ways to utilize cropland in a swelling sea of subdivisions. You won’t see as many cattle as you did in the 1970s, but you’ll see a lot more goats. Meanwhile, suburban ranchettes harboring recreational horses continue rising to the forefront of local animal husbandry.
The three producers featured here, including two commercial growers and a personal-use hobbyist, are representative of the Flathead’s variegated farming community, insomuch that any supremely diverse collection of people can be represented by a few, which is the point. There is no one type, or three or 10 types, of agriculturalist that can be considered the face of Flathead farming. Only in their differences can we best appreciate their unifying thread: they all find a way, their own way, to summon life from the land they love.
Two Bear Farm
Todd and Rebecca Ulizio, owners of Two Bear Farm, have a hyper-local business model, but their vision is global. In a modern world that prioritizes convenience, and is stricken with myriad health crises and seemingly daily reports of wide-scale food contamination, they see a broken system, though not incapable of repair. The solutions could save lives, and at the very least they’ll make your veggies a lot better.
As agriculture and distribution have become increasingly centralized through global capitalism, we have grown farther apart from our food. The simple idea of buying produce from a farmer down the road is no longer simple. The health concerns and unwieldy geographical logistics spawned from this trend are driving the local food movement currently sweeping the country.
The Ulizios are members of that movement, which is to say they’re trying to be part of the solution. But, even with a thriving business, they know their efforts only have so much impact. As a country and a world, we’re still a long ways from reestablishing a collectively intimate relationship with our food. The movement must become the norm.
“I would hope in the near future, we’ll see the pendulum swing back to where communities have access to food grown within their boundaries,” Todd Ulizio says. “Right now, globalization and centralization is good for shareholder profits, but not for communities.”
“We’re trying to get people to think about where their food comes from,” he adds.
The Ulizios believe that healthy food leads to healthy people, and it all starts with healthy soil. Emphasizing “nutrient-rich food,” they put great care into amending their soil with nutrients and testing the soil, even though it adds to their already heavy workload and costs more.
“We don’t get that money back, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Ulizio says.
Ulizio grew up on a farm but ended up as a wildlife biologist, following an ill-fated stint as an accountant. But after a decade in biology, he began slowly working his way back to his agricultural roots. He came full circle when he met Rebecca, who was teaching sustainable agriculture at Flathead Valley Community College.
They started a one-acre organic farm in Eureka with 24 community-supported agriculture (CSA) members. Six years of growth later, in 2014, they relocated to a plot near Whitefish, with financing from philanthropist Mike Goguen.
Today, they have 200 CSA members, which Ulizio believes is their max, and sell vegetables at farmers markets in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish. They also operate a food truck that showcases meals made from local foods, run by chefs Josh and Mandy Bard, who cut their culinary teeth in the country’s farm-to-table standard bearer, Vermont.
“With the food truck, we want to show that eating seasonably and sustainably is really not a sacrifice,” Ulizio says. “You can eat well and enjoy it without sacrificing.”
The Ulizios cultivate 16 acres of organic vegetables on their 65-acre KM Ranch Road farm, while also growing their own oats and crop-cover seeds. The work is demanding and unrelenting, but the land is their sanctuary. They have no intentions of ever simply becoming managers while others toil in the fields. Their fingers are most comfortable in the dirt, where the solutions begin.
For more information, visit www.twobearfarm.com.
Going to the Sun Fiber Mill
There’s an element of Alice in Wonderland at Going to the Sun Fiber Mill, as a goat with no ears dashes across the lawn past a Chihuahua bouncing on three legs, while a mini llama watches from a nearby corral. As you stop to consider whether the llama is really that tiny or the goat truly has no ears, a much larger llama named “Arby” walks up to you, as if ready for a conversation.
But instead of Alice strolling through the scene, there’s Diana Blair, the ringleader of this wild and wooly operation.
Blair opened her specialty fiber mill west of Kalispell in 2006 with the intention of filling a void for local producers of sheep, llamas and alpacas, who had plenty of wool and fiber but few in-state options to process it. At the time, she says there were four fiber mills in Montana.
Today, there is only one other, Sugar Loaf Wool Carding Mill in Hall. Yet, there are numerous mills across the country, including in Idaho and Washington. She has gradually fine-tuned her services to fill specific needs and niches within the industry and offer them at her operation.
“I started the mill because people needed it,” she says. “There are lot of sheep and llamas and alpacas locally.”
Blair has contributed to that number by raising her own livestock – specifically llamas, big and small – in addition to processing the wool and fibers of other producers’ animals, such as bison, yak, musk ox and goats, including cashmere goats, from across the country and Canada.
“The biggest thing is that I’m here to help the small fiber breeders throughout North America,” she says.
The multi-faceted milling process is labor intensive and painstakingly detailed. Blair’s extensive list of provided services includes blending, picking, washing, felting, separating, carding, de-hairing, and custom spinning and weaving. Various industrial machines make up the mill and perform many of the primary processing tasks, under Blair’s careful guidance, while Blair also uses hand tools such as wheels, spindles, looms and needles to weave and spin.
Seeking more color, Blair has incorporated custom dying into her repertoire, which creates an assortment of fiber products marbled with beautiful hues.
She says few mills in the country offer such a service.
The base materials produced at her mill can be used for a range of textile arts, including core-spun and knitter’s bulky yarn, rovings, quilt batts, and felt. Additionally, she makes her own products, such as hand-woven rugs, pillow covers, blankets, scarves, hats, table runners and garments.
Blair is showing her work at the Sept. 17 Flathead Celtic Festival in Herron Park and at a month-long exhibit at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center called “Uncommon Threads: A Celebration of the Fiber Arts.” The Bigfork show runs through September 24. She also teaches a course on fibers at Old College in Alberta.
For more information on Going to the Sun Fiber Mill, visit Blair’s website at www.gttsfibermill.com.
Steve Cummings, Grape Grower
Steve Cummings’ ambition was straightforward: make a bottle of wine good enough to enjoy at dinner with his wife. But he didn’t want to take any shortcuts. He decided to oversee the process from seed to table, and finally to the palate.
Cummings planted his first grapevines in 2005 on his property in Lower Valley and harvested his first batch three years later. He had been an enthusiastic hobbyist winemaker for years, experimenting with everything from rhubarb to apples to pears. But grapes are the flagship fruit of wines, and spurred by the increasing availability of cold-weather crossbreeds, Cummings launched his own vineyard, an undertaking that requires yearlong maintenance.
“I was one of the only ones in Montana doing grapes at the time,” he said.
Today, Cummings has nine varieties of red wine grapes and 10 whites on his one-acre plot, plus a handful of others for juicing and eating. He was one of roughly 80 grape growers statewide to show up at the second annual Montana Grape and Winery Association conference on June 16-18 in Missoula. Cummings is secretary-treasurer of the fledgling group. At the conference, he received proof that he has far surpassed his humble goal of producing a decent bottle: his Cuvée red blend tied for best overall wine.
Cummings remains a hobbyist, neither growing grapes nor producing wine for commercial purposes, only for consumption among family and friends. But others are taking their grapes and wine to market, and Cummings sees financial opportunities for those interested in pursuing them.
Thanks to genetic tinkering that has rendered more crossbred varieties suited for harsh weather, along with rising appreciation for local goods, “Montana grape grower” is no longer akin to “Antarctica coconut producer.” And while many Montana grapes are currently destined for out-of-state winemakers, there are more wineries emerging in Big Sky Country. Given recent developments, it’s not too hard to envision Montana as a viable wine region: growing grapes, making wine, and selling it both out of state and locally, although nobody is anticipating the state’s rebirth as Napa Valley.
Grape cultivation is not without its difficulties here. The growing season is short and unpredictable, and grapes need a certain prolonged amount of warmth to sweeten up, otherwise they are too acidic. And even when the weather cooperates, only specialized varieties – typically genetic combinations of American and French grapes – are hardy enough to grow in this northern climate.
“Our harvest strategy here is to harvest a day before it freezes,” Cummings says.
On a recent July afternoon, Cummings examined the still-green grapes of his Frontenac vines, which were among the first he planted a decade ago. Frontenac is a hybrid created at the University of Minnesota from the Landot 4511 and cold-hardy Vitis riparia grapes. Along with Marquette and Sabrevois grapes, Frontenac produced the prize-winning Cuvee blend.
Cummings won’t be selling his Cuvée, but he’d be more than happy to someday see a whole shelf of Montana wines at the local supermarket.
“Made-in-Montana wine,” he says. “That has some cachet to it.”