Former artists now run sustainable farm

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A group of black angus steers stand in a pasture at Lower Valley Farms on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Among farmland that alternates between fields of wheat and cow pastures is a small sustainable farm that came out of a family’s desire to have fresh food.

“What we’re doing, well, here it’s weird,” said Mandy Gerth, the co-founder of Lower Valley Farm, which she started alongside her husband, Jay Cummings.

Gerth, 35, and Cummings, 37, are first-generation farmers in their fourth growing season. When they talk about their 70-acre farm, they shift through a series of buzzwords.

“You could say we’re a regenerative farm, with grass-fed beef and rotated crop,” Cummings said.

“We are sustainable and ecological,” Gerth added.

Boiled down, the family wants to have a beneficial relationship between their crops and the land. They rely on imitating nature to create a product that is good for the environment, animal welfare and public health.

Gerth said it’s an effort that takes a unique shape in a neighborhood that has survived off the tradition of herding cattle and plowing fields.

“It’s a fish bowl here,” she said. “Which makes it so that we all learn from each other.”

Cummings looked to his neighbor’s fields, “Everyone is so supportive of what we’re doing as young and ecological farmers — they’re intrigued, not judgmental.”

The couple represent a national trend focused on organic farming, though they are quick to point out they haven’t filed the paperwork needed to claim the official “organic” title.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of organic farmers has quadrupled since 1990, reaching 14,540 in 2015.

However, the number of farmers is shrinking as farm sizes grow.

According to Farm Aid, roughly 330 people leave their farms each week. While the Department of Agriculture recorded there are still more family farms than corporate ones, large farms account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production. Those who are entering farming are typically 65 and older, according to the department.

Gerth stood next to their two acres of spray-free vegetables and described tending to a high density of product in quick rotations, which allows one crop’s nutrients to seep into the ground before one vegetable crop is sold and replaced by another.

“The small ecological farm really focuses on feeding from the bottom up,” she said. “By taking care of the land, it will make a better crop, which is economically beneficial.”

The couple never planned to operate a farm or return to Montana, where Cummings grew up.

They met in graduate school, both working toward master’s degrees in visual arts. After graduation, they moved to Philadelphia and worked as full-time artists.

The long hours and sporadic pay didn’t fit their lifestyle after having their first child. So they moved out of the city. Cummings became an art teacher and Gerth became a caretaker mom to her three sons and a growing garden.

Gerth saw her children’s energy and attitudes improve when they ate healthy food. It was enough to convince the family that buying fresh, local and sustainable food was worth it. But as a family of five surviving on a teacher’s income, they realized the majority of their income was going toward buying organic food.

Eventually, the desire for healthy food within reach led the family to look in a new direction — toward Montana and land Cummings’ grandfather had purchased just after World War II.

“We knew this land was here, and we began to really wonder, ‘Could we be farmers?’” Gerth said.

The farm was a blank canvas that became their continuous art project.

Cummings said they learned to start little with their tools and their efforts to have room to tweak their methods as they grow and still have time to raise their three sons.

“It’s a pretty big jigsaw, managing your quality of product and of life,” he said. “But it’s amazing the amount of grace there’s been in our mistakes as we learn how to create a resilient farm.”

While the couple stick out among their neighbors in age and practice, their lifestyle has hints of tradition.

Their small house with clothes on the line in the backyard sits on the land Cummings visited as a child. From the front yard, he can see his parents’ home through scattered trees. His cousin’s red barn is across the street.

Gerth pointed to a line of trees they recently planted to create a wind buffer in several years.

“This is a career for us,” Gerth said. “And someday, we look forward to being the old farmers on the street.”

To learn more about Lower Valley Farm and where to find its food, visit http://www.lowervalleyfarm.com/p/welcome.html.


Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

Mandy Gerth plants a tray of lettuce with her husband Jay Cummings at their farm on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

 

Mandy Gerth picks radishes from their farm on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

 

Mandy Gerth and Jay Cummings laugh as they try their arugula at Lower Valley Farms. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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