Montana remains a leader in organic agriculture, and this week more than 200 organic farmers, buyers, suppliers and others are getting together in Kalispell to figure out how to take advantage of the growing markets nationwide for organic products.
Doug Crabtree is the board chair of the Montana Organic Association.
"I am at our farm home headquarters, which is 36 miles northwest of Havre, Montana," or, as he likes to say, "south of Medicine Hat," said Crabtree.
He and his wife Anna own and operate Vilicus Farms.
Vilicus is a roughly 5,000 acre dryland organic crop farm, where they grow oilseeds, legumes, heirloom grains, and cover crop mixes.
Crabtree has been involved in the organic movement in the state and nationwide for close to two decades, and was the organic program manager at the state department of agriculture until he turned to farming full time.
He says Montana is near the front of the organic pack nationwide.
"I believe in the latest data we’re second in the nation in acreage of certified organic crops," Crabtree said.
That’s according to a 2016 report from a private data service, which says Montana has around 400,000 acres total in organic production - behind only California.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks Montana third in organic acreage, and says it has around 140 certified organic farms.
"And it's growing. There’s a lot of momentum in the industry right now. Montana has added 50 organic farms since 2014," said Heather Estrada, Agriculture Program Director at Flathead Valley Community College, and one of the organizers of the Montana Organic Association’s annual conference.
In its 14th year, it's taking place at FVCC from Thursday through Saturday.
In such a huge, rural state, it can be hard for beginning and more experienced growers to get together.
Which is why, Estrada says, the conference is such an important gathering place to connect, learn and socialize.
There’ll be workshops on everything from seed-saving to farm policy, seminars led by top researchers, farm tours, vendors, and even a one-woman play.
"We want to encourage a lot of farmer-to-farmer networking, where farmers can talk to each other and share their successes and challenges," Estrada said.
A topic that comes up in a lot of farmer circles these days is how to adapt to climate change.
"For farmers of all sorts, and certainly for organic and what we do, trying to operate in a weather uncertainty and just-craziness," said Doug Crabtree. "Events that..I have neighbors that are older than I, that have been farming all their lives, and they’ll just say, oh we’ve never seen - fill in the blank - and in the same year. That’s the thing that is so remarkable about it - is that you see extremes, in all directions, within a given season," he said.
Despite having a wet season back to back with a dry one, Crabtree’s farm has been able to survive because they grow over fifteen different crops, so if one fails, they usually have a few that do really well.
"I think organic farming is uniquely positioned to be both a solution and also a strategy for managing under, you know, this erratic weather that we’re subject to now. Just by its very nature of being less input dependent, less yield dependent, in many ways, and especially the diversity that you need to have to be organic. That also leads itself to stability in terms of variable climate," said Crabtree.
Doug and Anna got into farming organically partly because of their values - they didn’t want to use chemicals to grow food - but also because they saw a major business opportunity to tap into a market that’s been growing steadily for years.
"You know, rather than us taking our crops to the elevator and taking the price they offer, we get calls, literally on a weekly basis, from people asking us either if we have or if we would consider growing crops for them, and at what price would we do that. So we are, rather than price takers, we get to be negotiators, or price setters," said Crabtree.
Montana also has relatively affordable land that isn’t under the same level of development pressure that exists in other states.
While Crabtree likes to see new farmers attending the conference who can build on this kind of potential in the state’s organic sector, he issues a farmer’s no-nonsense warning to those thinking about entering the field.
"The most difficult transition is between your ears. To farm this way, you have to be able and willing to think differently," Crabtree said.