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Honoring the Heritage of Food

August 2012
D'Jeane Peters, Public Affairs

Photo of Jacob Cowgill
Jacob Cowgill, organic farmer near Conrad, Montana, worked with NRCS to install a seasonal high tunnel, and implement irrigation water management and nutrient management plans.

On the windswept plains of Conrad, Montana, there is a tiny patch of ground that grows a variety of food in a unique way. Organic vegetables, ancient and heritage grains, lentils and a variety of seed crops, and Narragansett turkeys all come from 15 acres of leased land called Prairie Heritage Farm. Jacob Cowgill and his wife, Courtney, run the small organic farm and focus on the fundamentals — no chemicals, production diversity, a direct relationship with the consumer, and quality of life.

By utilizing assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), community involvement, their own excellent work ethic, and a commitment to the farming lifestyle, the Cowgills have made a name for themselves as farmers of sustainable foods.

Jacob and Courtney wanted to start farming but didn’t own any land nor did they have any cash to invest into what is now Prairie Heritage Farm. They originally asked a small group of friends if they would be interested in investing in a business as silent partners. To their surprise, their friends said yes. When they were approached by family who wanted to invest, they were a little worried; mixing business with family is not always good. But soon their small business venture with a few friends and family grew into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In this, the Cowgills offer a Vegetable (CSA), a Grain (CSA), and a Thanksgiving (CSA) where members pay a subscription each year and then are provided with a weekly supply of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season, or a supply of organic, heritage grains, or a Narragansett turkey with fall vegetables for Thanksgiving. “This direct market equals good relationships with our customers,” says Cowgill. This kind of community involvement is what got them started and what keeps them going.

“As beginning farmers, we knew that vegetables were the thing to start with,” says Cowgill. However, starting a vegetable farm on Montana’s Hi-Line proves challenging due to the short growing season and fluctuating temperatures. In 2010, the Cowgills took advantage of the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that provides financial assistance for high tunnel systems and other agricultural practices. A high tunnel is a dome structure made from a metal bowed frame and covered with a polyethylene-type plastic. The high tunnel is used to extend the growing season of plants, which are grown in the soil beneath the cover. In early spring, the high tunnel is home to cool season vegetables such as lettuce or spinach. Tomatoes, peppers, and other warm season vegetables are planted in a separate greenhouse. After the lettuce is harvested and the temperatures in the high tunnel are warm enough, the tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos are transplanted into the high tunnel where they are cared for until harvest. Cowgill said, “The average growing season went from 90 days [outside the high tunnel] to about 120 days [inside]” because of the additional warmth that the high tunnel provides for the crops.

In addition to the assistance for the high tunnel, the Cowgills received technical and financial assistance to implement an irrigation water management plan, as well as a nutrient management plan, under the high tunnel. With an organic operation, Cowgill said crop rotation is very important to reduce disease and insect pressure without the use of commercial herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizers. He has a flexible crop rotation and tries new varieties to see what will work. Cowgill’s flexibility and willingness to research potential new produce is an asset to the management and overall success of raising organic crops.

Probably the most important goal for the Cowgills is their commitment to living a healthy lifestyle that they can enjoy with their young daughter. “Not only are we starting a business, we’re living a lifestyle,” says Cowgill. Working with NRCS and the CSA customers are just two of the many tools that have been used to assist these beginning farmers. Cowgill said that the financial and technical assistance they have received from NRCS has helped make this a sustainable operation.

These two beginning farmers have recently moved to an organic farm near Power, Montana, which is owned and operated by them. They will continue to improve on the fundamentals—no chemicals, production diversity, direct relationships, and quality of life.

Photo shows seasonal high tunnel with vegetables also growing in foreground.
Jacob and Courtney Cowgill grow vegetables on their organic farm near Conrad. The seasonal high tunnel, funded partially through an NRCS special initiative, extends the growing season for vegetables.
Photo shows peppers growing inside the seasonal tunnel.
Peppers thrive inside Cowgill's seasonal high tunnel.
Photo shows a group of turkeys.
Cowgill also raises Narragansett turkeys as part of his Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.