The still, early-morning silence of a gloomy Montana autumn dawn is broken by the sounds of wheelbarrows pushing through rows of densely concentrated, leafy plants. Somewhere in the corner of the small farmyard, over by the chicken coop under a towering chestnut tree, Luke Robinson hammers away at a fence, trying to correct the lean of a post, which was pulled off-center from too much tension in its novice construction.
The farm is managed by Blue Sky Stewardship, a Missoula-based not-for-profit farming program with a goal of bringing self-sustaining alternative urban farming practices to everyday people in the Missoula area—and eventually, beyond.
Robinson started Blue Sky Stewardship with his two friends Stephon Smith and Will Halliburton a little over a year ago.
“We weren’t interested in just doing organic or normal ‘sustainable’ farming techniques, because most of those are still so far from what would naturally occur in the wild,” says Robinson. We want to introduce permaculture and forest gardens to people. We want them to get rid of their grassy lawns and turn them into whole biospheres that are completely self-reliant.”
Permaculture and forest gardening are low maintenance systems of farming, designed to closely mimic a natural environment. Unlike conventional annual crops like wheat and soybeans, which need to be fertilized and carefully maintained, these practices rely on symbiosis between different types of perennial plants to fertilize and maintain a garden.
Plants with deep root systems are planted in close proximity to fruiting trees, and when they die off each winter, the nutrients that have been pulled up by the roots are recycled to the top of the soil and made available for trees. Grazing animals are used to help remove pests, and help control the growth of plants.
The guys managed to find a local couple who was interested in what they wanted to do, and who agreed to donate about two acres of their own land to the stewardship. They relied heavily on local individuals and businesses to donate plants and seeds, provide materials to build chicken coops, construct fences and lay concrete for Montana’s first aquaponics greenhouse (like hydroponics, but with fish living in the water to fertilize the plants).
But even after securing the essential land, seeds and saplings to start planting, starting a business from nothing proved to be far more complicated than Robinson and his partners had anticipated.
“We had to learn how to register a business, write grants, get permits and do things like build fences,” says Smith. “We spent a whole lot of time and money to travel around to workshops and put on ones of our own. We hired people to come help us out with all the little things we didn’t know how to do.”
Even with seemingly endless obstacles and costs that would deter your average 20-something, Robinson, Smith and Halliburton persevered with their vision.
As people in the community learned about their efforts, their workshops began to turn a profit. People across the state began to donate materials to the operation. They hired student interns who were looking for farm experience. Other farmers in the Bitterroot Valley, Kalispell, and Hot Springs donated livestock and land for them to use. Eventually, Blue Sky partnered with more established Missoula organizations like 1,000 New Gardens and Reinvest Montana to put on joint fundraisers.
Blue Sky Stewardship now offers weekly classes in everything from beverage fermentation to business development and butchering. This fall they began their first large pre-winter harvest, donating most of their crops and livestock to other local farms, their interns and the Missoula Food Co-Op.
Although they still face challenges like finishing their aquaponics greenhouse, neighbors complaining about noise from chickens and slowly chipping away at their debt, Robinson says because of everyone who’s helped out, they’re more confident than ever in their efforts to help establish a more sustainable future for Missoula.
“We’ve been invited to consult people on what they can do to turn their yards into forest gardens,” says Robinson. “[Missoulians] have really taken to the idea, and it’s awesome to see how much people here believe in all this.”