December 3rd, 2008

Re-Localizing Food in Montana

I faithfully follow Sharon Astyk's blog Casaubon's Book aka "Depletion and Abundance." This brilliant blog often focuses on the practical side of food production and preservation, adapting in place, and supporting the relocalization of food resources. It has inspired me to experiment with fermentation as a form of preservation, such as probiotic sauerkraut and kombucha tea. I also became aware of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement through her site.

It has made me wonder about what is going on in Montana to relocalize food supplies. Montana is not generally known for its rich agricultural soils or beneficient gardening climate. We do grow dryland wheat and sugar beets, but they generally require a lot of mechanized infrastructure and sprays dependent on petroleum products. And unfortunately, what richer agricultural lands we do have, are often being covered by sprawl and other development, as in the Missoula valley, Hamilton, and Kalispell. Back when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, the area up around Flathead Lake was famous for its cherry orchards and berry farms. We even got peaches there too, for canning and making preserves. Climate impacts and resort development has decimated that fertile landscape. I don't even know if they have any orchards there anymore; at least I don't hear about them the way I used to.

In Helena when i was a kid, there was an operation here in the valley back in the 70s, called Kinsey's Gardens, where you could go and pick your own produce. I remember helping to pick green beans and strawberries that Mom canned. That's gone too.

So in this post, I want to take a look at two aspects of local food production in Montana. One aspect is old: the Chinese gardens many of Montana's mining camps depended on in the late 1800s; many white settlers also grew their own gardens, but the Chinese were the acknowledged masters of the art. The other aspect is recent: the development of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and organic farming in Montana.

Chinese Gardens in Montana

Chinese vegetable vendor in British Columbia

In the 1870s, the Chinese built terraced gardens in various places around Montana, such as in Helena, in German Gulch, and in Blackfoot City. They were successful in not only growing vegetables for their own needs, but also with supplying the mining camps with fresh produce. I have not been able to find out which vegetables they grew in Helena but I bet it was mostly cabbage and root vegetables like carrots, beets, and parsnips. Their largest gardens were located about where the old "new" Federal Building is now, across from Reeder's Alley. The excerpt below tells how important Chinese gardens were in the old mining communities, and how they can serve as a model in the future. Zhu Liping wrote:

The first challenge to the Chinese, as to anyone living in a foreign land, was to remain healthy. The Chinese fared well by adjusting to frontier conditions, and their eating habits contributed to a better physical condition. Intense physical labor in mining camps required that everyone have a hearty, high-protein diet. Because of limited meat supplies in China, Chinese people for centuries had learned to rely on fish and beans (poor man's "meats") for sufficient protein. An abundance of cattle in the American West often made beef one of the cheapest foods in mining camps. Taking advantage of this natural gift, Chinese settlers embraced beef with great enthusiasm. Meanwhile, pigs and chickens from backyard pens and ranches provided the community with additional fare, and some Chinese drove Washington hogs and Oregon cattle to Idaho mines. As a result, Chinese miners consumed an unusually large amount of meat per capita-on average, one pound daily per person-which gave them greater physical strength. This compared to Euramerican consumption of between a half and one pound of meat per capita per day.

Combined with their high-protein diet., the Chinese ate a lot of vitamin-rich vegetables. Altogether, they consumed a healthy combination of rice, bread, beef, pork, chicken, cabbage, potatoes, beans, onions, squash, carrots, beets, turnips, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, sugar, and tea. It was a balanced menu that contrasted sharply with the eating habits of most white miners, who ate a monotonous diet of bread, bacon, butter, beans, beef, sugar, coffee, and dried fruits. At first, white miners often puzzled over the Chinese habit of eating "green gourds and green pumpkins and green squash," which they discovered helped the Chinese avoid scurvy. Lacking the vitamin nutrition of fresh vegetables, early white miners were susceptible to scurvycases were frequently reported-and they tried to avoid vitamin C deficiencies by eating green onions and potatoes soaked in vinegar or lime juice.

Fresh vegetables constituted the dearest of commodities in early mining camps. Despite high prices the Chinese considered them an important part of their diet and solved the problem of scarcity by growing their own. By the early 1850s Chinese gardens had sprung up near every mining or urban center, providing the local community with fresh vegetables. The Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise reflected a situation typical of most mining camps when it reported that "every patch of ground cultivated by them [Chinese] is a model of neatness, and they pay such strict attention to the rotation of crops that something is constructively growing in every bed and plot."

Although Chinese peasants knew how to grow vegetables, natural barriers in the American West posed challenges to agriculture. In the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Sacramento Valley, for example, Chinese gardeners had to learn to grow crops in a land of summer drought and moderate winter rains, while in the northern Rocky Mountains they had to overcome the short June- to-early-September growing season. Guangdong Province, China, in contrast, had a twelvemonth growing season and plenty of moisture. Nevertheless, the Chinese adjusted to each new environment accordingly. Using terraced gardens, effective manure, copious irrigation, and careful tending, they harvested vegetables under California's semiarid conditions and raised six crops in Idaho's short season. On the mining frontier, the Chinese earned a reputation as "the most thorough gardeners in the world." Indeed, the term "Chinese garden" became synonymous with freshness and quality. The "Green Gold" that Sucheng Chan identified as vegetable gardening gave Chinese miners extra financial power as well as greater physical strength. ("No need to rush,"
Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Autumn 1999 by Zhu, Liping)

This has made me very interested in learning more about Chinese gardening in Montana, including the techniques used and varieties of vegetables selected. I'll get back to you on this as it develops.

Re-Localizing Food Production in Montana

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, there were operations like Kinsey's and other mom and pop places. And of course the Hutterite farms produced loads of eggs, potatoes, and other goods the drove around selling out of their big silver stepside vans. Sometimes fellows from Washington drove boxes of apples over, and folks from down south sold boxes of oranges. It was also the time of the "hippies" and "granolas" as they were known, trying to grow organic crops in spots around the western valleys.

Surprisingly, there's actually a lot going on these days in Montana, with CSA operations listed for Missoula (Garden City Harvest), Creston (Swallow Crest Farm), Hamilton (Homestead Organics Farm), Kila (Raven Ridge Farm), and Whitefish (Terrapin Farms).

CSAs work like this: People buy into the program in the spring; the farms' workers and volunteers plant, tend and harvest the crops; and the CSA subscribers pick up their "share" of the harvest each week during the peak growing seasons, usually 18 to 20 weeks from May to October.

Proponents list many benefits of such programs, including the support of local farmers, knowing where your food is grown, and the better taste and health bonus of organically grown, freshly picked, in-season food. (

Actually, as I began to Google what is going on in Montana in the relocalization of food production, I realized there is a lot more going on these days than I thought, and so this entry is going to have to be the first of several. For now, check this out:

Montana's Food System in Change

This 10-minute video tells the history of Montana's food system from a time when the state's farmers and ranchers produced most of Montanans' food--through agriculture's shift to commodity production for export following WWII. The story describes the rise of hunger in Montana and suggests a return to producing food for local consumption as a possible path to economic revitalization and food security.

This video was produced for the March 2007 Montana Governor's Summit on Food and Agriculture by the summit planning committee, with production completed under the auspices of the Montana Department of Agriculture by Murmax Productions of Power, Mont. To order copies of the DVD please contact debbier at ncat dot org.

Please click the arrow to watch the video.

(Approx. 10min in length)

Eddie Lenihan in "Tell Me A Story"

Award winning* short documentary about Eddie Lenihan, a Seanchaí (storyteller) from Co. Clare.

dir: James Slattery (2008)
duration: 10 minutes
aspect ratio: 16:9 (widescreen)

For more on Eddie and his stories, visit:
* Recipient of Skillset Academy's 'Best Postgraduate Project' award, 2008.


Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment in the world. These days, stories are communicated through a variety of channels; television, film, books, computer games, blogs on the internet, etc. In looking back to the origins of storytelling, Ireland has its own fascinating tale to tell. During Celtic times, Seanchaís would memorise local history rather than write it down. They would then recite this history in the form of a lyric as requested. Travelling through towns and villages, the Seanchaís earned their keep by entertaining the locals with their tales of magic and myth.

Eddie Lenihan is a modern day Seanchaí who travels around Ireland trying to keep this old tradition of storytelling alive. Eddie is passionate about his life's work, and is somewhat of a documentarian himself. For over forty years he has travelled around the country with his microphone recording tales from other storytellers and building up his own archive. Not only is Eddie ardent about preserving the oral storytelling tradition, he also believes in many of the stories he has heard; stories of fairies, and not the ones from Walt Disney as he is quick to point out, but dark evil creatures that history has forgotten.

Eddie is a fascinating character and his story, like the tales he tells, is compelling.