Flathead Valley Community College grows agriculture programBy DAVID REESE
Waves of heat rose from the dark, sandy soil as Julian Cunningham picked raspberries and peas at his farm last week in Bigfork.
Next to him his son, Kieran and daughter, Marika, and farm intern Al Kuhn dropped their vegetables in plastic pails, unfazed by the heat of the day.
Since 1997 Cunningham’s Swallow Crest Farm five miles north of Bigfork has fed local families who subscribe to the community-supported agriculture model of farming. Families pay Swallow Crest farm a monthly amount for vegetables, from peas and carrots to strawberries and raspberries.
Cunningham also supplies food to the Bigfork Natural Foods Co-op. He has reduced his farm from five acres to one acre. “That’s a manageable size,” he said. “At five acres, things get exponentially larger.”
He once had over 150 members of his subscriber-supported farm, but he’s taken that down to about 20 families now, as he’s preparing to enter a new phase of his farming career. Cunningham and Heather Estrada are starting Flathead Valley Community College’s new agriculture programs.
Estrada received a USDA grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop a program at Flathead Valley Community College. She coordinated a needs assessment, and using input from local agriculture-related businesses, she said, “We determined there was a lot of interest and demand” for an agriculture program at FVCC.
The primary goal of the agriculture program, she said, is to increase the agriculture economy in the Flathead Valley and Montana.
Students in the two-year program may transfer their credits to Montana State University in Bozeman and complete a four-year degree in Agriculture Business, Plant science or Sustainable Food and Bioenergy systems. Students in the FVCC program, which starts this fall, will have an opportunity to work on the campus farm, as well as do class work geared to a full range of agriculture education.
Estrada has set up internship programs at a variety of Flathead Valley agriculture-related businesses, from nurseries to dairies. “We’ve tried to cover the gamut,” Estrada said.
Cunningham and Estrada have been busy establishing curriculum and building a five-acre farm between the Stillwater River and the FVCC campus. Starting from scratch on soil that is fairly poor, they are building up the soil. It’s a perfect time for students to learn how the full range of organic farming. “The FVCC farm soil has some “good strong characteristics,” Cunningham said. “I think it will produce well.” It’s not like the soil at his Swallow Crest farm, though, “Which has one of the best soil types in the world,” he said.
Having a farm on campus is key to the program. “It’s an experiential education for students,” Estrada said. “Campus farms increase student engagement.”
Food grown at the FVCC agriculture program will be used in the college’s culinary arts program, in the campus kitchens, and is also for sale during the summer through the college’s Farm Fresh wagon that sits on campus on Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Cunningham now will be looking for someone else to take over his well-groomed soil at his farm, which sets on a small knoll at the base of the Swan Mountains.
He looks to people like Al Kuhn, who came to Bigfork from Sacramento, to be an intern and learn the intricacies of organic farming. Kuhn arrived here in May and will stay in a farmhouse at Swallow Crest Farm through the harvest season. “This is a job getting me ready for my own farm operation,” Kuhn said. His family ranches in Sacramento, and Kuhn will establish his own farm when he returns this fall.
Kuhn learned the basics of farming in classes at San Diego City College, but he’s learned more at Cunningham’s farm north of Bigfork, where tomatoes grow six feet tall in hoop houses that stretch the length of one acre. Brightly colored Swiss chard glowed in the afternoon sun, while a Holstein cow grazed next to the barn.
Kuhn, 26, reached down into the soil and plucked a huge carrot, displaying it with pride. He helped grow it.
Kuhn said this internship allowed him to see a wide range of farming techniques. “The beauty of a farm this size is its diversity,” he said. “Some of my friends work only on irrigation or picking. It’s very common for some interns to weed their summers away.”
Kuhn was enthusiastic as he worked in the summer heat last week, smiling as he picked along a row of peas. He said he may never gain financial wealth as a small-scale farmer. “But it depends on how you view wealth,” he said. “Wealth can be having a bountiful crop of food on your table.”
It’s important now for Cunningham not so much to raise vegetables — as it is to raise awareness and knowledge of farming.
He wants to share that knowledge gained over decades of farming with students. “As I get older, I’m more interested in the big picture of farming,” Cunningham said.
Estrada said she’s excited to have someone with Cunningham’s experience to help launch the fledgling agriculture program at FVCC. “He just has so much experience,” she said.
Cunningham said he’s fortunate to have his children around during the summers to help out, along with the strong back of Kuhn. When he accepted the teaching position at the college this spring he said he “put out the cry for help.”
“The key to the farm working this year is these three guys,” Cunningham said, while they picked peas. “I can’t take much credit this year.”
The farm where Cunningham and his wife built Swallow Crest dates back to 1889 when it was a 1,200-acre operation. The original barn from the Cooper homestead still stands like a strong sentinel over the nearby ranchettes and homes. Swallow Crest raises about 30 types of basic food items for its customers.
Cunningham wants the farm to remain in production, perhaps under a lease agreement with a local farmer. “I want it to remain an important educational tool,” he said.
Cunningham has a diverse background in agriculture. He was raised on big agriculture operations in Texas and Missouri, and he attended agriculture school in Norway. His parents tried to steer him away from farming but, he said, “I always knew this was what I wanted to do.” It’s particularly exciting that he gets to be on the ground floor of starting an agriculture program at FVCC. “I think it answers a need,” he said.
For many years, Cunningham has been his own boss — or maybe the farm was, with the vegetables demanding so much of his time.
He and his family have risen to the challenge of planting, nurturing and harvesting food for other families, all on a deadline to his subscribers. “We had some really great times, and some that were really stressful, trying to squeeze more food out of a row,” Cunningham said.
Now Cunningham drives into Kalispell instead of driving a tractor from his from front porch. “I feel good about moving on,” he said. “I was ready for a change. It’s going to be a fun, new direction for me. The hardest thing is getting up and going to work in town.”