Can Lessons from Vermont Keep Local Agriculture Alive in Montana?

By Erika Fredrickson
Missoula Independent/High Country News

This story is part of The Montana Gap Project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a small group of farmers gathered at a table inside a neighborhood restaurant on the outskirts of Missoula. It was a crisp 25 degrees outside, but inside the Trough a fireplace flickered and the smell of bacon wafted through the air. The farmers pulled off wool coats and knit caps and held their travel mugs out to the waitress, who filled them with steaming coffee. The Trough, formerly Dale’s Dairy, is about the only place in at least a mile radius of the Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods where you can grab a bite to eat. Its rustic decor evokes an old farmhouse, but it’s a decidedly modern space—and that combination of traditional and contemporary makes it the perfect rendezvous for rural farmers trying to keep farming alive in an increasingly urban setting.

vermont land access

“We have a lot of prime agricultural land in Target Range and Orchard Homes,” says Fred Stewart, owner of Green Bench Orchard. “But this is a confined valley, so there’s a lot of development pressure and a lot of competing interests for the land.”

Stewart, who also runs a U-pick apple operation, is tall and lean in jeans and an unfussy button-down shirt. He’s become a regular at these Wednesday morning meetings, along with an eclectic crew that includes flower farmer George Hart of Harts Garden and Greg Peters of Red Hen Farm and Orchard, the men who started the meetings. Also present were Dennis Tayer of Tayer Lawn & Garden, Erin and Jon Turner of Turner Farms, and Heath Carey, the faux-hawked founder of Freedom Gardens, a nonprofit that, among other things, transformed 2,500 square feet of parking lot at the Missoula County Fairgrounds into a community garden between 2013 and 2015.

Orchard Homes and Target Range have long farming histories. Irrigation canals wend through the rural neighborhoods where, since the 1890s, food production has been the dominant pursuit. Today, the area consists mostly of single-family homes on half- to one-acre plots surrounded by parks, riparian corridors, wooded floodplains and small tracts of farmland. “How do you describe this place?” I ask the farmers. “Nirvana,” Jon Turner answers with a grin.

For the past 15 years, farmers, food advocates and enterprises in and around Missoula have been working to build a strong local food system — and a visible one. A big piece of that is figuring out, as Missoula grows, how to preserve farms that provide products directly to local markets. But land that is good for farming is often good for development — only 8.9 percent of Missoula County’s prime agricultural soils are left, and half of those are in Target Range and Orchard Homes. Both development of land already approved for subdivision and new subdivision proposals are on the rise — most recently Spurgin Ranch (20 acres of agricultural land divided into 19 lots) and B&M Zoo (13.2 acres of ag land divided into 19 lots). And many farmers and agriculture advocates are wondering how to maintain the area’s agricultural identity.

“Not only do we love the lifestyle and raising our kids here, but also we’ve been given a legacy to continue working on the rich soils out here,” Erin Turner says. “That’s a gift we feel passionate about, and I know that’s what all the other farmers out here feel, too.”

There are significant challenges to saving farmland in Orchard Homes and Target Range. One is lack of policy. Montana’s state constitution requires cities and counties to “protect, enhance and develop all of agriculture,” but there are no mechanisms for how to do that. In theory, the directive’s broadness allows for flexibility, so that individual governing bodies can create policies tailored to specific places, like Orchard Homes and Target Range. But that same lack of specificity also allows counties to enable development in places like Orchard Homes and Target Range, because there’s already farmland elsewhere. Statewide, Montana has a lot of farmland: 28,000 farms on 59,700,000 acres. In that context, development projects in places like Orchard Homes and Target Range, which are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the county, are often approved, even on agricultural land. The loss of that land is regarded by the county as an “incremental” loss, even as, according to the farmers who meet at the Trough, the impact to the neighborhoods is enormous — and permanent.

“Once you pave it over, it’s gone, as far as agricultural potential,” Stewart says. “A number of us have worked a lot on neighborhood plans, zoning, trying to get the local politicians to see protecting ag land here as a reasonable thing to do. It’s hard to get their attention.”

A second issue is that when land goes up for sale in Orchard Homes and Target Range, the market value is not affordable for most farmers, which is why retiring farmers often end up selling to developers.

“Folks look at their land and they know the value — $150,000 an acre for a home lot here in this area,” Stewart says. “There’s no way that I know of that you can viably make a living paying $150,000 an acre and put it into agriculture. It cannot be done. So how is it that we see a way to protect ag land here going into the future?”

Vermont farmland access

More than 2,000 miles away, in Vermont, saving farmland is a top priority. Drive any of the roads between Montpelier and Burlington and you’ll find small farms galore that enjoy a rural lifestyle and still engage directly with the towns and cities they surround. These farms exist because of state policy that protects farmland, and that policy has also fostered an environment in which land trusts and other agricultural nonprofits thrive, helping farmers to pay affordable mortgages. With the help of these resources, Vermont farmers are often able to invest in multiple enterprises, bringing in more income and allowing them to market themselves to surrounding communities.

On a winter afternoon at the Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vermont, silos loom and hoop houses line the road to the farm’s small parking lot, from which the pasture and barn where cows and pigs feed are visible. Inside the farm shop, employees pack a freezer with cuts of beef and pork. There’s a cooler full of root vegetables and cabbages and baskets brimming with potatoes and the farm’s heirloom popcorn, all for sale. It smells delicious in there, because Mike Proia, owner of the Blank Page Cafe nestled inside the shop, is baking muffins and making coffee.

“It’s especially busy in the spring and summer,” he says. “But we get a lot of people coming through even in the winter.”

In the summer, Bread and Butter, which is owned by farmer Corie Pierce, hosts a weekly burger night featuring the farm’s grass-fed beef. Usually a couple hundred people show up. The farm also partners with local schools for farm tours and camps, and adjacent to the farm shop is a studio where Pierce’s husband, Chris Dorman, runs a music and movement class for kids called Music for Sprouts.

“Despite the inefficiencies and real-time logistical challenges of managing so many different enterprises, we think that in the long run it makes us more resilient and long-term sustainable,” Pierce says. “Not only for the health of the land and environment around us, but also for the health of the people and greater community involved.”

Whereas few farmers in Montana have outside assistance in funding their operations, Bread and Butter is one of hundreds of farms in Vermont that rely on support from multiple organizations. In 2009, Pierce and her then-business partner applied to buy the historic 143-acre Ludec Farm with the help of the Vermont Land Trust. VLT negotiated the price with the sellers to almost $2 million — an amount prohibitive for any working farmer. VLT paid to put a conservation easement on the land and procured funding from other sources, including the towns of Shelburne and South Burlington; a grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (derived partly from federal funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service); a donation from the South Burlington Land Trust; and loans from both the Castanea Foundation (which conserves agriculturally and environmentally significant lands in Vermont and New York) and VLT. The loans from the Castanea Foundation and VLT were paid off through South Burlington’s state statute-enabled Transfer of Development Rights program, which allows landowners preserving important parcels (like the Ludec Farm) to sell their development rights, which are then purchased by developers and used for high-density building projects in areas near Burlington designated for growth.

The outside funding brought Pierce’s cost down to $225,000, which she gathered from historic preservation foundations, investors and CSA members. Bread and Butter is the farm’s sole owner, but it took a dozen organizations and more than 25 individuals to accomplish the purchase.

The Vermont Land Trust isn’t the only land trust in the state, but it’s especially prominent in the realm of agricultural conservation. Founded in 1977, VLT has helped preserve 900 of the 7,000 Vermont farms currently in production (and has conserved more than a half-million acres of agricultural land and forest). The nonprofit offers to buy conservation easements on agricultural lands to protect them from development and keep them in production in perpetuity. The easements also reduce the market value of the farmland, which helps give farmers access to the land. VLT works with everyone involved, from retiring farmers who want to sell and farmers who want to buy, to lenders and facilitating nonprofits.

“Part of that work includes us sitting at the kitchen table, literally, with retiring farmers to figure out how to sell their land,” says VLT’s Farmland Access Program Director Jon Ramsey. “That discussion includes a strategy for finding a successor and thinking about how the farmer’s current business model may or may not work for the next person who farms there.”

VLT defines a farmer as someone who makes 50 percent of their income from agriculture. The farmer has to have agricultural experience, a business plan and the ability to use the property productively. It can’t be someone who just hopes to become a farmer. For beginners looking to learn their way into farming, VLT has programs to connect them to resources that will give them the experience to qualify for land purchases through the trust in the future. The Farm and Forest Viability Program, for instance, provides technical assistance grants to organizations including the University of Vermont Extension Service, the Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Land for Good and the Intervale Center, which all use the funds to help farmers plan their businesses. VLT manages the land transactions and the other organizations work on the business end.

The Intervale Center is highly regarded in Vermont’s food community. The nonprofit’s 350-acre site lies along the Winooski River on the outskirts of Burlington, a mile-and-a-half-long spread of historic farm buildings, community gardens, wildlife areas and farms. Even in winter, the hoop houses are full of leafy greens growing in the muted light.

Intervale has been around for 30 years, and during that time its staff has helped Vermont farmers and agriculture organizations statewide launch incubator farms and agricultural policy coalitions, among other initiatives. Intervale’s land is under a conservation easement, and as semi-rural farmland supplying a nearby urban center, it has a lot of similarities to the Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods.

It also fell into neglect for a few decades.

“By the 1980s, there was an actual junkyard with hundreds of dumped cars,” says Intervale Development Director Chelsea Frisbee. “There’s still probably some 30 junked cars in the woods that didn’t get taken out. The fields were either fallow or in corn production by dairies across the river, but it really wasn’t being used to its full agricultural potential.”

The story goes that Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply, got his car stolen and heard that he might find it somewhere in the Intervale area.

“He’s this really unique, entrepreneurial visionary,” Frisbee says. “He saw the potential to turn the Intervale back into productive agricultural land and feed the city of Burlington. And in 1988, that’s what he did.”

The Intervale Center is an aggregation of possibilities: It preserves farmland (and watersheds) while providing assistance to farmers who are keeping land in production. The abundance of organizations and resources in Vermont is integral to these farmers’ successes. But it took a major act of policy to make that network of resources possible.

Fifty years ago, Vermont residents and policymakers began to see an increase in the number of subdivisions being built on agricultural land, an issue similar to that in Orchard Homes and Target Range, but statewide. Vermont’s highway system was completed over the course of the 1960s and ski developments drew tourists from metro areas as condos went up on small lots. According to the Vermont Natural Resource Council, Gov. Deane Davis, who held office from 1969 to 1973, was apprised on several occasions of newly built subdivisions dealing with sewage problems and realized that Vermont’s environmental health and rural lifestyle was at risk. He formed a committee with legislator Arthur Gibb (both held office as Republicans) to recommend a package of environmental regulations known as the Land Use and Development Act, or Act 250. While the impetus for Act 250 was environmental, its intent was to preserve Vermont’s heritage, including agriculture.

Vermont farmland access

The act requires developers of prime agricultural land to mitigate their environmental impacts. “Onsite mitigation” means that developers can build, but must protect a portion of the property onsite as farmland. “Offsite mitigation” means the developer pays a fee to develop the land. That fee goes into a pot of money at Vermont’s Housing and Conservation Board, which redistributes the money as grants to organizations that conserve farmland elsewhere.

Act 250 has incubated a network of land trusts and other nonprofits that have learned to work together to preserve farmland. Strong policies have spurred these organizations to create far more stringent rules than trusts in many other states employ.

The Vermont Land Trust, for instance, uses easements that have more restrictions than is typical. In its easements, VLT includes “an option to purchase at agricultural value,” which serves as VLT’s pre-emptive right to block a proposed sale and redirect it. A lot of agricultural easements nationwide protect land, but they don’t ensure that it stays in agricultural production. Even land preserved through Act 250 could, without VLT’s specific easement option, end up in the hands of second-home or estate buyers. Because VLT’s funding includes money apportioned by Act 250 and other state and federal programs, Ramsey says, putting an easement on land that might fall out of ag production doesn’t make sense.

“Then it’s really not contributing to the local rural agricultural economy,” he says. “A lot of public investment is going into these properties, and you want to see them remain working farms.”

Vermonters aren’t that different from Montanans. Even if they’re willing to put their land into a conservation easement, they don’t like too many restrictions on their land. To generate support for its “option to purchase at agricultural value,” VLT held hearings around the state in 2004. Farmers asked questions and expressed concerns. “One of the things we heard loud and clear was that they didn’t want us to interfere with family-to-family transfers of land,” Ramsey says.

The farmers also expressed the desire to be able to transfer land among themselves. In response, VLT built exceptions into its easements that say the land trust won’t interfere with family or farmer-to-farmer transactions.

Perhaps the most important result of Act 250 was the formation of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, a quasi-state agency that reviews development and conservation projects. The board has nine seats, five of which are citizen positions appointed by the governor (and which must include one low-income housing advocate and one farmer). The remaining four positions are filled by the executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency and commissioners of the state agencies of Agriculture, Housing and Community Development and Natural Resources. The revolutionary aspect of the board — which made it one of a kind when it was founded — is its alliance between housing and conservation interests, weighted with equal importance and aimed at balance.

“We’re looking at downtowns and village centers,” says Nancy Everhart, the board’s agricultural director. “And it seems really complementary to us to then be protecting farmland, recreation lands and natural area lands that are generally outside of those places.”

Vermont farmland access

The board disperses money from sources that include property taxes and Act 250. It also decides how to use money from the legislature and federal agencies, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Lobbyists for that funding include those from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition. Because of the powerful alliance of housing and conservation interests, and generally reliable state and federal funding, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has been able to approve at least six major development or conservation projects every year. “We’ve had lean years and we’ve had better years,” Everhart says, “but we’ve always had some base funding.”

Besides stable funding, it’s the board’s comprehensive approach that Everhart says is integral to its success. When deciding which conservation or housing projects to fund, the board looks at the lay of the land, including infrastructure and how the land is managed. It considers town and regional plans.

VHCB provides funding for farmland preservation, but it also partners with nonprofits and other organizations to ferry approved projects toward sustainability. In the case of agricultural conservation, groups including the Intervale Center help farmers with business plans, certification processes and best-practice farming information. VHCB helps conserve large plots of farmland, but also protects smaller acreages near urban centers like Burlington, in Chittenden County. As in Orchard Homes and Target Range, these are farms that can’t compete with large-scale industrial farms (like wheat farms in eastern Montana), but can offer another agricultural service: growing vegetables and flowers and raising meat that goes directly to markets in Burlington.

“That area is well-suited to the kind of operation that wouldn’t necessarily be a commodity crop,” Everhart says. “It would be farms that are more direct-market, that grow food for people in the city. I think maybe part of the education that needs to happen, which has definitely been evolving in Vermont, is understanding that there’s so many different kinds of agriculture. And there is a huge interest in direct-market farming, both from farmers and from consumers. I view the work that we do as wanting to work with all those players.”

Since its inception, VHCB has awarded nearly $260 million to nonprofit housing and conservation organizations, municipalities and state agencies to develop nearly 1,500 projects in and around 220 towns. That investment has directly leveraged approximately $860 million from private and public sources and resulted in the creation of more than 10,500 affordable homes, the conservation of 390,740 acres of agricultural and recreational lands and natural areas, and the restoration of 56 historic community buildings for public use.

“It doesn’t always work perfectly,” Everhart notes. “But I think one thing that’s really been successful about the coalition — the partnership that emerged to create us and create this source of funding — is having affordable housing folks and conservation folks meet and collaborate under the same mission.”

According to Bonnie Buckingham, executive director of Missoula’s Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, that kind of connection between housing and agriculture interests is lacking in Montana, both in terms of philosophy and action. Having visited Vermont to study the state’s preservation strategies, she says VHCB is the kind of alliance Missoula should aspire to.

“They form a cohesive group when it comes to making policy or new developments,” she says. “I really think, if we did have a coalition of people, that we could come together and really work on projects that everyone [agrees on]. Here, it feels like we’ve really taken sides. We’re sort of pitted against each other, even just in people’s minds. And we don’t have to be.”

One example where Vermont farmland was preserved in the face of stakeholder conflict is the case of Exit 4. Sam Sammis, a real-estate broker from Greenwich, Connecticut, had planned for nearly 40 years to develop 172 acres outside the town of Randolph, south of Montpelier off Highway 89. His plan included high-end condos, a hotel and commercial real estate that he envisioned, according to reports, as an economic boon for a town he’d become fond of. In April 2017, after several environmental groups and citizens had fought the plan, he agreed to sell 150 acres to the Castanea Foundation for $1.2 million.

The remaining 22 acres were sold to the Preservation Trust of Vermont in June 2017. One of the key players in preserving those 22 acres was the Vermont Natural Resource Council, whose office is on Bailey Avenue in Montpelier, directly across the street from the Vermont Land Trust. VNRC is not necessarily in the business of saving farmland, unless it has environmental significance. But its origin story tracks to Act 250, and its “sustainable communities” program is tasked with keeping an eye on the act’s review process when it comes to prime agricultural soils.

“We don’t like to beat people up, but sometimes you’ve got to show up and point it out if something isn’t going to meet the law,” says Sustainable Communities Program Director Kate McCarthy. “Particularly when a case has statewide implications, to make sure the law doesn’t get weakened and that precedent isn’t set.”

The saving of the 22 acres, a former driving range, was a nail-biting victory that started with contentious negotiations and ended with agreement. The Preservation Trust of Vermont led the way, raising $1 million in six weeks, along with VNRC and a citizen activist group called Exit 4 Open Space.

On a chilly afternoon in December, Miles Hooper, the dairy goat farmer who will lease the 150 acres from the Castanea Foundation starting this spring, takes me on a walk through Exit 4. Save for a McDonald’s just off the highway, the land is a striking stretch of sloping hills, sugar maple groves and open pasture. Hooper manages his family’s farm, Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, on nearby land conserved through the Vermont Land Trust. He’s in his early 20s and lives on the farm with his wife and kids. When he’s excited about something — and agricultural policy is one of those things — he practically yells.

“People look to Vermont, to us, for social responsibility and for environmental stewardship,” he says. “We built a reputation on quality and consideration and compassion. That’s what we’re known for.”

Hooper’s viewpoint is a little different from McCarthy’s and the VNRC’s. Like them, he didn’t support development on Exit 4, but he says his own talks with Sammis about the land found common ground. Hooper wanted to preserve the 150 acres he planned to use for his goat dairy. But the 22 acres that was put into an easement by conservation groups? “It’s boney,” he says. “I wouldn’t farm it. I don’t know anyone who would.”

His hope was that Sammis, who had planned for so long to develop the place, could use that 22 acres for a hotel — a compromise.

“There was a lot of mixed feelings about how it would change the character in the town and the importance of ag land,” he says.

Even so, buyers are currently negotiating a deal for the 22 acres—a couple plan to restore the soil and use it as a nut and fruit orchard with some acreage in hay.

In the 1970s, Vermont made a decision to create a specific mechanism, Act 250, to preserve agricultural soil. In January 2016, Missoula’s Community and Planning Services department proposed a county subdivision regulation similar to Act 250. The hearings for that proposal, held before the county commissioners, came to an emotional head in a very public way. For a decade, agriculture advocates including the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition had been working with CAPS to come up with a county policy that would require landowners and developers building on agricultural soils to pay an impact fee, set aside farmland onsite, preserve comparable land elsewhere or submit their own mitigation proposal.

“We took a pretty strong stance on one-to-one mitigation,” the Missoula coalition’s Bonnie Buckingham says. “For every acre that’s developed, an acre should be saved, and there should be a variety of ways to do that, because one way isn’t going to fit every single situation.”

On one side of the debate were organizations like the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and farmers like Fred Stewart and Jon and Erin Turner, who meet at the Trough, all hoping to see the county enact a policy that would require farmland preservation. On the other side were developers like the Missoula Organization of Realtors and some retiring ranchers who wanted to subdivide their land, and didn’t want development restrictions. To the coalition’s surprise, the policy was voted down by the county commissioners in a tearful (on both sides) hearing. One of the most surprising opponents was Five Valleys Land Trust, a longtime open-space organization that has preserved more than 70,000 acres in Montana, including agricultural land. In its testimony, the land trust sided with developers in saying that voluntary conservation — not a mitigation policy — was the better approach.

“It was devastating, quite honestly,” Buckingham says. “We lost all of our momentum at that point.”

The schism between the coalition and the land trust simmered for some time.

“The conservation community was really confused,” Buckingham says. “And kind of distraught, I would say, that different organizations that should have the same vision were not working together. It led to what I think is a positive in that it forced both our board and the Five Valleys Land Trust board to really look at our policies, at why it had come to this disagreement and how we could bridge that gap.”

The organizations started meeting and talking about ways to mend the relationship. One major step forward, initiated by Five Valleys and funded by the American Land Trust, was to gather staff from Five Valleys, Garden City Harvest and the coalition for a trip to — where else? — Vermont.

The organizations took farm tours and spoke with leaders of the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Natural Resource Council, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Intervale Center. Buckingham says that the possibility of Act 250-style legislation coming to Montana now seems slim, but an alliance like the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, even if it’s not appointed through the state, could help create a better plan for places like Orchard Homes and Target Range. And that kind of alliance, she says, could encourage an environment in which Missoula County might see the rise of agricultural support resources similar to the Intervale Center and the Vermont Land Trust, which could set aside farmland and help farmers gain access to that land.

“It was great to see all the different entities working together,” Buckingham says. “Vermont made a decision 30 years ago that made that happen, and we, as a community, haven’t decided to do that yet.”

Still, Buckingham sees promise in the conversation that has developed since the subdivision hearings. The trip was a chance for the organizations to “build trust” and get to know each other outside the heated debate of public hearings, she says.

“In that way, it was very good,” she says. “It helped us to say that when a project comes up, we can talk about it. And that’s the biggest lesson that we learned, was the need to have a project that we work on together.”

Mike Nugent, treasurer for the Missoula Organization of Realtors, opposed agriculture mitigation during the county hearings. Though he believes voluntary mitigation is preferable to a mandate, he thinks agricultural and development can coexist. But he cautions that agricultural advocates looking to preserve farmland also have to consider that Missoula’s growth isn’t going to stop.

“I think specifically Orchard Home and Target Range have their own identity, and they’re very proud of it, and they want to stick to it,” he says. “I don’t have any problem with that at all. The thing about Target Range and Orchard Homes is, if we don’t allow growth there — which, that’s fine — it’s going to go somewhere else. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that.”

Now that the subdivision hearings are in the rearview mirror, Nugent has thought about solutions. For one thing, he says, there hasn’t been enough focus on high-density development. Also, he says, agriculture mitigation needs to be better defined. “I think that folks who were on the pro side of that conversation still definitely feel like we need very standard, laid-out policies on ag mitigation,” he says. “People in the development community probably feel like the biggest issue is [that] there’s no predictability. What we’re doing now, where every project is decided at the whims of whoever is on the council or the commission at that time — I don’t know [if] that works for anybody.”

One of the major lessons Buckingham says she learned from her trip to Vermont is that preserving farmland takes a lot of support from the cities and towns that consume the food that farmland produces. In and around Missoula, farms are finding ways to connect with the public, using strategies that are part marketing, part philosophy.

“One of the big things I’ve talked about with this group is where we live — what Missoula, and particularly Orchard Homes and Target Range, are,” Jon Turner says. “If we can have local farms people can come to, that would bring another revenue stream into our farms. And it would help the next farmers have some sort of sustainable model to work with.”

That connection to people tends to foster loyalty from customers.

“We do a big pumpkin festival in the fall,” Erin Turner says. “Obviously the No. 1 reason is to sell our pumpkins, but it also creates that exposure. Then people are like, ‘Oh, Turner Farms! I’ve been there!’ and it sticks in their head. And it creates this level of support for local farms where people think, ‘We want to save that farmland out there! That’s important to us.’”

The PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake is another good example. The land is owned by Missoula County Public Schools and subleased to Garden City Harvest, which uses it to educate students about farming and policy, while also serving as a community hub (sometimes with burger nights). The farm has become inextricably linked to the identity of its neighborhood. A few years ago, when MCPS was considering developing the land, community backlash was swift, and the farm’s lease was renewed.

The idea of addressing development and farm preservation conflicts by forming a housing and conservation alliance is being tested with a new organization called Trust Montana. The Missoula-based nonprofit is employing a community land trust model by which Trust Montana can buy land (or accept donated land) while farmers own the business and equipment. It’s modeled on a collective of African-American sharecroppers in 1960s-era Georgia who created a community land trust to take ownership of the land they farmed. According to Executive Director Hermina Harold, Trust Montana hopes to serve a similar role as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Currently, the nonprofit is working to turn donated land in rural Montana into community land trusts, but it is also looking at urban fringe neighborhoods, Orchard Homes and Target Range in particular, as sites of collaboration for agriculture and affordable housing.

For Trust Montana, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and people like realtor Mike Nugent, who are looking for common ground, the next step is one that everyone has to take together — an idea reflected in the opinion of Vermont’s government at the inception of Act 250.

“We knew we could not stop change, and that was not our objective,” wrote Elbert Moulton, special assistant to Gov. Davis at the time. “But we can direct it, and we can ensure quality change if we establish standards and criteria as guidelines for change.”

As housing developments continue to rise in Orchard Homes and Target Range, the local farmers who meet at the Trough each week are lobbying county commissioners to take seriously their demand for a farmland preservation plank in the upcoming revision of their neighborhood plan. They rely on CFAC for policy expertise and to be their voice when they are too busy working their farms to attend meetings.

“Farmers feel consistently underappreciated,” George Hart of Harts Garden says. “They don’t feel like they get a fair shake no matter what, but in an area that involves bureaucracy and government, we’re pretty sure CFAC is working for us, even if we don’t have time to pay attention to what they’re working on.”

Meanwhile, Missoula-area farmers are not waiting around for a local version of Vermont’s Act 250 to save the day. They’re working on community engagement now, building up their CSAs, hosting farm tours and trying to grow their neighborhood farmers markets, which are held throughout the summer at the old Grange Hall, Orchard Homes Country Life Club, on South Third Street West.

“If we can get enough of us that we become a destination for people, then I think if the public sees us losing land, they’re not going to let that happen,” Jon Turner says. “You’re going to have a lot more hope when you have people behind you.”

Without a statewide policy, the farmers in Orchard Homes and Target Range don’t have a straightforward way to ensure agricultural preservation. If Vermont is any indication, it will take a united collaboration between housing and agriculture groups, plus the support of Missoula residents, to make that happen.

-Erika Fredrickson is the arts editor at the Missoula Independent.  

This story was first published in High Country News.

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