STEVENSVILLE — As day lengths shorten and new spinach plants germinate across 15 acres in the Bitterroot Valley, a worker cooperative of four farmers plans to feed 150 households in Missoula, Hamilton, Stevensville and Helena. The farmers capture sunlight energy under the moniker the Missoula Grain and Vegetable Co. (MGVC).
“We’ve grown food for members of our farm and also six farmers markets this year, and we’re going to push the season through the end of January,” said Katelyn Madden, 25, of Stevensville. Madden looks out over plans to raise a 28-module solar farm and a new washroom and cold storage barn, and remarks, “We’re ready to feed more Montanans the vegetables they’re craving. The quality of supermarket produce is the best thing that ever happened to us.”
In 2017, the farmers fed 37 members of their winter program. These members signed up for weekly deliveries of greens like spinach, arugula, tatsoi, baby kale, chard, spicy greens and stir-fry greens mixes. This year the farm adds more winter hardy crops.
Each delivery is $30 and includes an average of $40.80 worth of produce. And they’ve increased the delivery period from 10 weeks to 14 weeks. Asked what vegetables were a pleasant surprise last winter, Elizabeth Williams, 32, of Missoula, responded, “All the greens. How do you grow leafy greens in Montana in the winter? I imagine this farm must have magical powers.”
Their secret? The farmers expose their greens to frightening frosts in September and October, and as the winter brings in colder and colder temperatures, the crew gradually increases provisions of row cover fabric and greenhouse plastic to the surviving plants.
By next year, their ambition is to grow fresh greens year-round. In a nutshell, the farmers have learned when to plant these salad crops so that they grow just big enough to harvest, and by November the plants enter a state of stasis.
“We learned so many new techniques for season extension last year. I felt like a kid again, observing nature in its coldest state,” Madden said. At this point in the season, the unheated greenhouses act like giant refrigerators, keeping the greens just cool enough to preserve the plant growth that occurred this fall. As a result of this cold conditioning, greens last for longer periods in members’ home fridges. Many members reported fresh harvested spinach lasting in their crisper drawer for over a month."
The results of this hard work are clear in the minds of previous members.
Elizabeth Williams said, "(We) would highly recommend. This saves me so much time on shopping, gets a variety of vegetables and dishes into my family's otherwise monotonous routine, and is an all–around enjoyable way to support local agriculture and our local economy."
Another member, Travis Dye of Missoula, relayed his interest in the freshness of the local vegetables and noted the appeal of, “getting items we would not normally buy, which helped us to be creative and try new recipes.”
The farm provides a mix of unique and standard recipes in their weekly newsletters to aid in meal preparation.
The several farm members interviewed exhibited distinct memories of the meals they crafted. They remember making a Persian herb stew called ghormeh sabzi (using all kinds of greens from the delivery), a spaghetti squash lasagna, a chicken piccata served in spaghetti squash bowls and roasted winter squash stuffed with the other vegetables.
Deliveries of this year’s frost-sweetened greens, roots and squash begin at the end of October. Missoula pickups are Tuesdays at Draught Works Brewery, 4-6 p.m. and Saturdays at the Senior Center, 9 a.m-1 p.m. Hamilton pickups are Tuesdays at the O’Hara Commons, 4-6 p.m. Helena pickups are set for Tuesdays at Ten Mile Creek Brewery between 4-6 p.m. And the farm welcomes members to pickup at their Stevensville location from 4-6 p.m on Wednesdays.
You can sign up online at www.missoulagrainandvegetable.com and to find out more information on the farm and membership, call farmer Max Smith at 406-214-6664.