Community Supported Innovation

Three and a half years ago, my husband and I did something that still sort of shocks me.

We packed up our little house in Missoula, left our jobs and career opportunities and moved home – to rural north-central Montana — to start Prairie Heritage Farm (www.prairieheritagefarm.com).

We grow organic vegetables, ancient and heritage grains and pastured turkeys, all of which we sell via farm share programs, or what’s often called community supported agriculture.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s a little like a subscription and a little like a shareholder situation. Customers pay up front and get a “share” of the harvest – whether that be a weekly box of produce, a Thanksgiving turkey or 100 pounds of ancient grains like Prairie Farro or Kamut and barley, lentils and chickpeas.

The idea is that by becoming shareholders, customers share in both the bounty and in the risk of farming. They also get to know their farmers and most importantly, they get an intimate view of where their food comes from.

But the whole thing is more than that. It’s more than a way of marketing produce or a way to connect eater with farmer. Writ large, community supported agriculture is about rethinking the way we support farmers and rethinking innovation and resiliency in our communities.

By now, I likely don’t need to tell you about the benefits of local food.

And, I may not need to tell you either how important farming, on any scale, is to the future of Montana, or how few young farmers there are these days, especially out here in rural Montana.

The message by now should be pretty well spread: We need more food and we need more farmers in our communities.

We’re often asked then, about how we might get others to do what Jacob and I did. That is to ask: What makes it possible for young people like us move to a small town and start a farm?

The good news is there is starting to be a lot of support for beginning farmers like us. We’ve had help on the financial side from federal farm programs. We’ve had help from the Montana Department of Agriculture. We’ve had help on the policy side from organizations working on behalf of beginning farmers – organizations like AERO, the Montana Farmer’s Union and the Center for Rural Affairs. We’ve had help from the University of Montana and Montana State University on research and education and we’ve had support from the economic development sector on the marketing and business side of things.

But, in looking back, what really got us to finally make the leap and what keeps us doing what we’re doing – even through long, hard days, tight bottom lines, hail and flooding and even bouts with turkey-hungry coyotes is that concept I started to explain in the beginning of this piece – this idea of community supported agriculture.

I admit, readily, that farming was a bit of a preposterous idea when my husband first broached it with me more than five years ago now. I grew up on family farm that weathered the 80s farm crisis, only to falter in the early 2000s – my parents finally selling once my brother and I had left for college.

This farming thing was a no-win situation in my mind. But then Jacob brought me into the community that gave him the inspiration in the first place. I attended my first AERO meeting and met all these smart, passionate people who reminded me that farming was important, who told me that farming was inspiring, that farming was innovative and farming was interesting and finally, that farming didn’t have to create the kind of heartbreak that my family farm did.

That’s really what finally opened me up to the idea. It’s what brought me back to my roots – what made me see all the good in where and how I grew up.

It’s those smart, passionate people who are now our investors, our mentors, the people we call when we need a combine header that will pick up something like black chickpeas and the people we have on speed dial for those long, hard, hail, coyote-ridden days when we feel like giving up and moving back to the city to find comfortable jobs and steady paychecks.

Everywhere, people are talking about how to jump start economies, how to foster innovation, how to encourage small business and how to increase social entrepreneurship.

And while policy work and fund-raising and institutional support are all great avenues to grow these things, the most important thing any small business owner, any entrepreneur, any innovator or any farmer can have is one that’s kind of hard to explain.

It’s community and connection — no matter if that community is the old-fashioned geographically-based community, or a far-flung, value-based community like the one we got when we entered the sustainable agriculture world via AERO.

Anyone going out on a limb needs someone, preferably more than one someone, telling them their work is possible, it’s important and most of all, it’s worth it.

Let’s call it community supported innovation.

In Conrad, I am Courtney Lowery Cowgill, a board member of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit online at aeromt.org or meet the community yourself at AERO’s upcoming annual meeting, Oct. 28 through the 30 at the Glacier Camp and Conference Center near Lakeside, Montana.

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