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Life Arts    H2'ed 4/18/11

From Suburbia to Organic and Sustainable on Missoula Farm

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My guest today is Molly Gross. Welcome to OpEdNews, Molly. You and I are from the same Chicago suburb [Skokie], but you're far from home right now. Where are you and what are you doing?

Molly's favorite spot on the Clark Fork River in Missoula

I am living in beautiful Missoula, Montana right now. I am gearing up to start my second growing season at Clark Fork Organics, an exclusively local and sustainable vegetable farm. CFO provides produce for the two local farmers' markets, a large health food store, a food cooperative, and several restaurants and caterers in the area. I will be working as the assistant manager this season, meaning that in addition to general labor (seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting, washing, etc.), I will be micromanaging the interns and serving as the liaison between the customers and the farm.

How did you hook up with Clark Fork Organics in the first place, Molly?

I found out about CFO online, actually. They had a job posting on a sustainable farming networking site, attra.org . It was relatively simple once I had applied - I just had to make the move.

I don't imagine you did much farming while growing up in Skokie. So what led you to a sustainable farming website?

I have been intrigued by the sustainable farming movement for a long time - I love spending time outside and I have a strong interest in animals and plants, so naturally, farming appeals to me. I have done some farm work in the past, too, although nothing this serious. I spent about a month volunteering on a Cloud Forest Reserve/Dairy and Vegetable Farm in Ecuador called La Hesperia during my study abroad semester. I learned there, among other things, that preserving natural habitat and farming can go hand in hand. Two summers ago, I led a teen volunteer trip through American Jewish Society for Service in Amarillo, Texas in which one of our projects was helping to build the first organic community garden in the area. This was especially physically taxing work in intense heat, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I knew then that farming was something I wanted to pursue. 

La Hesperia, Ecuador 

Who knew? I'd like to hear more about your time in Ecuador, Molly.

I was fortunate enough to spend my semester abroad in Ecuador on a very unique program, through the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation. My professors, Dr. Joe Meisel and Dr. Catherine Woodward, were the founders of this nonprofit organization which is "dedicated to the preservation and rehabilitation of tropical habitats, and the conservation of their plants and animals.  [Their] mission is to sponsor scientific research, provide public education and support community-based actions that promote the conservation of ecosystem integrity and biodiversity.  
[They] emphasize projects which promote the empowerment of local landowners and communities, and encourage them to actively participate in the sustainable management of their land." It's safe to say that I learned more in that semester than in all of the rest of my college experience. It was an academically intense program, packed with field courses in marine and terrestrial tropical ecology, conservation biology, and intensive Spanish, and we performed our own field research projects. We traveled all around the country and spent significant time in the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon. The month-long internship portion of the program allowed me to discover La Hesperia, where I had my first experience farming.

The program sounds absolutely fabulous, Molly! I can see why you were smitten. So you came home eager for more farming opportunities.  Did you jump right back in or did you have to finish school first?

I had to finish school first - I had just two semesters left after that. I was then in the Boston area working and interning on the weekends at an Audubon Society Nature Center doing some environmental education. It was not until the following spring that I made it to Montana.

How has your experience in the organic and sustainable farming world affected what you eat?

I have always eaten a fairly healthy diet - that is, a diet that was low in saturated fats, low in fast food and processed foods, and included lots of fruits and vegetables. But there is a big difference between what is simply healthy for our bodies and what is healthy for both our bodies and the Earth.

Wendell Berry, a writer, one of industrial agriculture's greatest critics, and a fellow farmer, says in his essay "The Pleasures of Eating" that "eating is an agricultural act." He argues that eating is the finishing point of the long process of the life of the plant. I won't go into too many details of his essay here, but I wholeheartedly agree with him. I believe that in this day and age when most people are extremely removed from their food, it's important to understand the impact a person can make by choosing which food to buy and where to get it. 
These choices can make profound social and environmental impacts. Working with produce so closely has made me question many things about the food I eat and buy: I wonder about where the plants were grown and whether or not they were exposed to harmful chemicals. I consider how the workers that harvested and cared for these plants were treated. I notice how far the food has traveled to reach me and what type of packaging it has traveled in.

The easiest way to bypass these complicated questions is to grow your own food! I spent the growing season last year eating most of my vegetables and eggs from the farm, and I have spent the off-season eating the vegetables that I froze and preserved over the summer. Not only do I feel great about eating these foods, they taste great too! There is nothing like eating fruits and vegetables right off of the plant, and I have experienced nothing more fulfilling than eating the food that I grew all year round. One of the reasons that I want to keep farming is so that I can continue doing this!

So, to answer your question, my experience in the organic and sustainable farming world has had an overwhelming effect on what I eat; I try to eat as locally, in season,  and chemical-free as I can because I have grown to understand the positive impact this can make. It is healthy for me, reduces my ecological footprint, and supports the local farming community.

fruitful yield

Wow, Molly, great answer!  You're wise beyond your years. Anything else you'd like to add that we haven't talked about yet?

I can't end this interview without mentioning the important aspect of community in sustainable farming. Missoula has been a great example of this.

Clark Fork Organics distributes food only in the Missoula area, and they and other farms in the area have such a great reputation of providing fresh, chemical free produce that they were able to shed the organic certification which can be costly and impersonal, and create their own certification through the Montana Sustainable Growers Union, called Montana Homegrown. When consumers see this certification, they know that their food not only has the same qualifications as organic certifications have; it is also local, the farms protect their soil and the ecology in the area, and by buying that produce they are directly supporting the local economy. This has only been possible because of the community in Missoula which is committed to local, seasonal food.

Garden City Harvest is a big part of what has made Missoulians see the importance of local food. Garden City Harvest is an organization which aims to distribute food to low-income people in the area, to educate the community and the troubled youth about ecologically sustainable food production, and to provide a space for people to grow their own food. The project includes an educational farm associated with the University of Montana which has a CSA, a number of community gardens where a person can volunteer in exchange for produce, and a great education program for youth and the community. 

late season view of farm

Clark Fork Organics would not be possible without a market in the area for local food. Restaurants in the area would not buy our produce if it was not important to consumers to eat that food. Missoula is a place where I have easily been able to connect to a community in which local food is a priority, and it has had only positive effects on the people of Missoula and the local economy. 

I hope to learn as much as I can this coming growing season and then take my skills to a community that is not so educated in local food and that does not have fresh food readily available. It is these communities that are in the greatest need.

What a plan! I've enjoyed catching up with you, Molly. Good luck to you. You have so much to offer; I can't wait to see where you land next!

Thanks so much for the opportunity!


Clark Fork Organics

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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