First there were seven, then eighteen, then thirty-six, now forty-one! Tucked away in the Rosebud school greenhouse, five tiny tomato plants have emerged from the tray planted by the 8th graders to join those of their peers. The 8th graders had been getting annoyed that their plants were slow to sprout while those of the 7th graders’ were flourishing, and even I was beginning to worry about what we might have done wrong. But now almost all of the students who planted seeds have a little speck of green growing in their pot, which collectively represent Rosebud’s new school garden! Winter’s a strange time to be starting a garden, but rather than let our enthusiasm stagnate, students installed heaters in the greenhouse so our plants will stay cozy even when it’s bitterly cold outside. As we plan for spring planting, the school has already started composting its food scraps and those of a nearby restaurant which will be used to fertilize the raised beds we anticipate building. What began as a simple class project is growing into a community-based effort to reduce waste, save money and live more sustainably in this tiny town.
Rosebud lies ten miles west of Forsyth, where I serve as a Montana FoodCorps volunteer with the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension Office. My service area encompasses Rosebud and Treasure Counties, which have a combined population of almost 9,000 people and includes an enormous stretch of land. While most of this land is agricultural, the majority of crops are commodity-scale grains, so finding enough local, fresh food to feed even this sparse population is a truly ambitious endeavor. As AmeriCorps VISTAs, I and 8 other FoodCorps members are spending a year in small towns across the state working to start or expand Farm to School programs, build school gardens and provide nutrition education to students.
Montana FoodCorps originated in 2006 from a partnership between Montana Campus Compact and Grow Montana – which is a statewide coalition of organizations working on food and agricultural issues. One of Grow Montana’s founding members is the Alternative Energy Resources Organization – or AERO – which has been working on developing renewable energy as well as sustainable food system solutions in Montana for over 37 years. AERO – as well as the other organizations in Grow Montana – saw a need for on the ground volunteers to help Montana’s communities start local food projects. In doing that, Montana’s FoodCorps has become a model for a National FoodCorps program, and in the last five years Montana FoodCorps volunteers have successfully steered over $2.5 million to local farmers and producers while helping get their communities excited about the possibilities of local food.
My work also takes me thirty miles west of Forsyth to the town of Hysham, where finding food (local or not) is an even bigger challenge. Hysham has been without a grocery store for three years, and residents must drive to Forsyth or the seventy miles to Billings for their shopping. To change this, a group of residents and I are exploring the idea of starting a cooperative grocery store, an enormous—and at times overwhelming—project. Still, it may make all the difference for a town where the average age is increasing while the population numbers are decreasing. We hope that a cooperative store which depends upon the support and labor of the community will not only provide better access to high-quality food, but also increase economic opportunities so that we can keep both dollars and residents in the area.
The biggest challenge for both of these projects is that Eastern Montana is a tough place to make a living, and for many residents, local food is not the top concern: there is barely enough time to do the shopping as it is. Local food will present an opportunity for these towns to reinvigorate their local economies while boosting regional pride and indirectly encouraging local, more sustainable methods of farming. My hope is to offer the model of local food as a way not only to improve the health of individuals, but also entire communities.
Proving that this is possible may be the hardest part of the process, but it is also the most rewarding. In my time here the Rosebud garden may only provide the cafeteria with a meal’s worth of vegetables, and the Hysham grocery store may take years to get off the ground. Still, in a region with approximately 2 people per square mile, I’ve already learned that every effort counts for double. The key is to start small, like Rosebud’s tomato sprouts, and with patience and cultivation, I’m confident we’ll see fruit.
In Forsyth, I’m Anina Estrem for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at www.aeromt.org.
This commentary aired on Thursday, December 8th on Montana Public Radio.