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Growing an organic farm from scratch: Vilicus Farms

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HAVRE, MT. – Vilicus Farms started with pure desire - and a passion for agriculture.The organic small grain, pulse and oilseed farm is owned by Doug and Anna Jones-Crabtree.The farm is located north of Havre, Mont., on rolling plains that stretch to the Canadian border, a region where crop fields and native prairie rangelands are plentiful.The Crabtrees, in conjunction with several organizations and universities, including Montana State University-Northern, Montana Department of Labor and Industry, and Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program, are offering at least two apprenticeship positions on their farm for 2017.Applications should be sent in as soon as possible. To apply see Crabtree grew up on the family’s grain farm in Ohio and loved working on the land from the time he was young.“I’ve always wanted to farm,” Doug said. The family farm was lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s, and Doug was offered a full scholarship in engineering at Purdue University.After one semester, he realized his passion was in agriculture, and transferred into ag economics. After working in farm management and ag consulting for 10 years, Doug returned to school, and earned a master’s degree in agronomy at South Dakota State University.He met Anna at Purdue.Anna grew up in rural Colorado and Washington. She, too, wanted to farm, but wasn’t sure how she was going to do it.That desire to farm, and the challenges that exist for beginning farmers fueled the organic apprenticeship the Crabtrees offer on their organic farm.Anna received a master’s degree in civil (construction) engineering from Purdue, and later a doctorate from Georgia Institute for Technology.Along the way to owning their own farm, they worked for other farmers, and worked full-time on other jobs.Doug worked as a professional farm manager and agriculture systems researcher in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.Anna worked for and continues to work full-time for the U.S. Forest Service.While completing his master’s program, Doug became certified as an organic (farm) inspector and traveled across the northern plains and Midwest to inspect organic farms and processing businesses. When Montana created an organic certification program at the State Department of Agriculture, he was hired  to build and manage the new program. Doug held the position for 11 years, while organic agriculture grew in Montana - and across the world. “All that time, we kept thinking about how we could purchase our own farm,” Anna said.It was a passion that drove them to work hard, even giving up their weekends to work on farms.“It was challenging for us but we always stuck to our longer vision of owning a farm,” she added.Their hard work finally came to fruition, and Doug and Anna were finally able to buy their own dryland farm north of Havre. At the age of 40, they were farm owners.The Crabtrees broke ground with a tractor they had purchased in spring 2009, with the help of a USDA Beginning Farmer loan for land, equipment purchase, and operating capital.“Some opportunities opened up for us and in 2009, we bought our farm. Doug began working on the farm full-time in 2012, while I worked for the Forest Service and helped out on the weekends,” Anna said.Our farm was CRP land, and Doug’s skills as an agronomist and farm manager, helped refurbish the land back to production.Since 2009, Vilicus Farms has grown from a 1,280-acre organic farm to around a 5,600-acre organic farming operation.The Crabtrees believe in a holistic approach to farm management that includes farming using soil health practices, keeping the soil covered, diversity of crops, extensive field borders, wildlife and pollinator havbitat, diverse rotations and cover crop mixes.“We found labor was hard to find with the oilfields near here, and it was just hard to keep someone wanting to come back year after year unless they have a real passion for agriculture,” Anna said.So, with a desire to help young people, teach, and a need for labor, the Crabtrees pursued their apprenticeship program in conjunction with the Montana Organic Association, Montana Department of Agriculture, other organic apprenticeship programs and universities.They have had apprentices on their farm, and one, a young person named Joe Velk, continues to stay and work on the farm. He is pursuing diesel mechanics, and the Crabtrees are happy to help him with that. They have plenty of farm machinery that needs maintenance. “Those who go through our apprenticeship program are valued team members on our farm, and we work with them to learn record-keeping, soil testing and soil health practices, farm management, equipment maintenance, organic cropping systems, agronomic skills and more,” Anna said.Anna and Doug are active members and serve on boards of several organizations including the Montana Farmers Union, Montana Organic Association, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Trade Association, USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Advisory Committee, Alternative Energy Resource Organization and others.


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