As the deep, tourmaline-green storm clouds began to part, they opened a window to the sun sending a golden shaft of light beaming down upon the garden and surrounding hills.

Nearby, next to the babbling brook, beneath a lazy wall of tall cottonwoods, sat the table - nearly 70 feet long, draped in white tablecloths - with a row of wineglasses, glowing in the waning sunlight, lining each side like soldiers guarding some faraway palace.

It was a scene straight out of Tuscany or maybe Napa Valley, yet it was all Bitterroot, through and through.

And it was the setting Wednesday evening at Sleeping Child Farms as a group of about 65 guests began to slowly meander down along Sleeping Child Creek to take their seats in anticipation of a meal that would be equal parts celebration and conservation of the glorious landscape.

The idea came to the Max and Darla Coleman, owners of Sleeping Child Farms and its farm-to-table restaurant, nearly two years ago when they attended a sustainable farming conference in Monterey, Calif.

There they listened to a presentation by chef Jim Denevan, creator of Outstanding In The Field, a gourmet meal series aimed at reconnecting diners to the land and the origins of their food and honoring the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.

They were immediately drawn to the concept and, though they doubted they could get Denevan himself to make it a part of the official series, that didn't hold them back.

"We thought, being Montanans, that we could probably do it ourselves," said Darla Coleman. "Fortunately, all these great vendors and providers came together for it."

The meal featured a selection of Sleeping Child Farms greens and vegetables, grown no more than a few yards from the table, and local pork, slow-roasted by the venerable Michael ‘Bosco' Cembalski of Cherry Apple Farms as well as local goat cheese from Hickory Leaf Farms' Cheryl Gill, wine from Bozeman's Cork Works and local bread from Patti Ostrander.

Head chef James Wiberg used his culinary prowess to bring it all together in a meal as fun to look at as it was to devour.

The event was organized as a fundraiser for the Bitter Root Land Trust, an organization that the Colemans feel a certain kinship with.

"We're both working towards the same goal, we're just doing it in slightly different ways," Darla said. "We're taking this piece of property that wasn't used for years and turning it into a productive, sustainable farm that produces for the restaurant and the farmers market and for local consumption. So, it's a good use of small pieces of acreage in the Bitterroot Valley."

Land Trust Director Gavin Ricklefs noted that the conservation organization is always happy to partner with local businesses who are conscious of the need for both open space and continued agricultural production in the Bitterroot Valley.

"We're working with a lot of agricultural producers in the valley who are interested in making sure that there is an agricultural economy and a local food source forever in this community," Ricklefs said. "I think what Max and Darla and everyone at Sleeping Child Farms is trying to do is recognize the importance of that local food source and really bring it to everyone here in the community. So, it's an appropriate fit for the Land Trust."

According to Coleman, they see their enterprise as an important piece of the local agriculture puzzle, especially in the process of adapting to the realities of modern day production and adding value for the producer.

"Being a part of the agricultural community is [important] in this valley; the whole economy was based on agriculture at one point. So, we're trying to turn that back a little bit and doing it in a way that is viable in the 21st Century is the key," she said. "I could plant potatoes on this whole piece of property and I'd probably make 20 bucks, but I can take it and add value in a different way and make a good living. That's the biggest thing for small farmers; they have to find a way to add value on small pieces of acreage."

Coleman said that they hope to make the charitable feast an annual event.

"It's a concerted effort to try and maintain the agricultural heritage and history of the valley."

Reporter Will Moss can be reached at 363-3300 or wmoss@ravallirepublic.com.