New PEAS Farm directors plan to grow community legacy
MISSOULA – On the floor of the Rattlesnake Valley about two miles north of the University of Montana, a 10-acre vegetable farm is speckled with the wide brims of garden hats. Underneath most of the hats are UM students, kneeling, heads down, next to rows of crops.
There is always weeding to be done, as the galinsoga is particularly aggressive this year. Harvest days are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which farm employees say make for an easy night’s rest.
Hands in the soil, these UM students are fully immersed in whole-person education at the intersection of community engagement and experiential learning on the PEAS Farm, jointly operated by UM and Garden City Harvest.
This growing season there is new farm leadership, who say they plan to continue the 20-year legacy of providing healthy local foods to Missoula and meaningful educational experiences to students from UM and local elementary schools.
Caroline Stephens, PEAS Farm lecturer, and Dave Victor, PEAS Farm director, have been named the farm’s new co-directors. Josh Slotnick, who started the farm in 1997 near Fort Missoula, has stepped away from the farm after he was elected to a six-year term as a Missoula County commissioner.
Stephens now leads the teaching and educational component of the farm and Victor leads the farm’s production program, both in conjunction with Garden City Harvest and UM’s Environmental Studies program in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Both Victor and Stephens are alumni of UM’s master’s degree program in environmental studies.
“It’s an honor to continue the magic and the legacy of this place, and the important ways this farm touches so many lives,” Victor said. “The food we produce is really just a platform for all of the other wonderful societal and community aspects of the farm. My hat is off to Josh for his original vision for this place, because that’s something we really want to protect and nurture.”
The farm is host to several community programs including Community Supported Agriculture shares, educational experiences for Missoula elementary school students and a program that teaches local young adults farming skills. Each year, the farm produces about 100,000 pounds of food, of which 15,000 pounds are distributed to the Missoula Food Bank each season.
Both Stephens and Victor say they’ll be successful new co-directors of the farm if they can seamlessly continue the farm’s production and community value, without customers and partners noticing a difference in a change of leadership.
“The Environmental Studies Program is enthusiastic and confident about the new model of co-leadership that we and Garden City Harvest have designed together for the PEAS Farm,” said UM Environmental Studies Program Director Phil Condon. “Caroline and Dave are the ideal team to make this shared vision a reality. The Missoula community and EVST students will all be the beneficiaries of their work as the PEAS Farm continues to evolve and grow, like the living place it is.”
At UM, the PEAS Farm provides a co-curricular experience tied directly to the University’s environmental studies curriculum by providing a six-credit supervised summer internship as well as two-credit internships in spring and fall. For Stephens, who supervises UM students on the farm and develops a farm internship curriculum, farming naturally includes critical thinking.
“I feel really lucky to be in a position where I’m able to lesson plan, teach, mentor and tie all of those things directly into production at the PEAS Farm,” Stephens said. “It’s amazing to watch students expand and engage in new concepts and skills and have their farm experience be something pivotal on their respective growth paths.”
On any given day in the summer, there are about 15 UM students from diverse majors including business, biological sciences, physics and environmental studies working on the PEAS Farm. The students spend four hours each weekday learning every aspect about of farming from plant cultivation, soil microbiology, weeding, pruning and trellising, to climate, irrigation and pest management. Two days each week, the students harvest the farm’s crops to give to the farm’s CSA shareholders and sell at a reduced rate to the Montana Food Bank and other partners.
The authentic experience of learning by doing is something UM junior Holly Hines says has deeply impacted her education.
“I’ve learned a lot about the importance of attention to detail from my time on the farm,” Hines said. “Everything you do at the moment affects something later down the line, whether that’s planting or weeding or something else. That kind of thinking about production and processes on the farm has been really interesting.”
Hines transferred to UM in January from a university in Minnesota. She said she was drawn to UM’s Environmental Studies program and the opportunity to pair her education with hands-on experiences. She also said her internship on the PEAS Farm has yielded new friendships and a sense of community.
For Dylan Brady, a senior studying environmental studies, an internship on the PEAS Farm teaching Missoula youth about food production changed his professional trajectory.
“The farm changed my life, completely,” Brady said. “Farming and education with a community impact is what I want to do.”
Brady, who says he’s inspired by the community impact of the farm, can recall every class title and textbook assigned in his environmental studies classes.
“I use that information everyday up here,” he said. “I’m also literally working alongside my professors in the fields and getting to see first-hand the impact of food production and environmental stewardship.”
Holding a chicken called Hei Hei named after a Disney movie character, Brady said he encourages students who are looking for an authentic, enriching experience to consider visiting and spending time at the PEAS Farm.
“I would recommend this internship and place to any student who wants an in-depth farm-to-school experience,” he said.