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An Organic Experiment

July 2012
D'Jeane Peters, Public Affairs

Anna Jones-Crabtree  and Doug Crabtree examine soil with Amy Kaiser, NRCS Soil Conservationist.
Anna Jones-Crabtree (left) and Doug Crabtree (right) discuss soil health with Amy Kaiser, NRCS Soil Conservationist.

The Latin word Vilicus means “steward.” In 2009, Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband, Doug Crabtree, bought about 1,200 acres near Havre, Mont., and named it Vilicus Farms, with the ambition of becoming stewards of the land.

In a region where wheat is the primary crop and chem-fallow rotations stretch as far as the eye can see, Vilicus farms looks unique. They work on a five-year rotation of about 15 different crops: flax, lentils, oats, red spring wheat, durum, sweet clover, vetch, peas, rye, winter wheat, buckwheat, safflower, sunflower, spring peas, and chickling vetch are all part of their operation. To grow a wide variety of crops on such a small acreage, Vilicus Farms employs a distinctive system: they have divided up their land into strips approximately one mile long and 240 feet wide, so they grow one crop in each strip. Between the strips are untilled sections of native range that serve as buffer zones between the crops and provide wildlife habitat.

“I want to challenge the idea that chemical dependent farming is conventional,” says Doug. Vilicus Farm was able to receive technical and financial assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as they worked on planning their operation. “NRCS was a huge help, that was part of financial startup,” says Anna. By enrolling as organic producers and beginning farmers, the Crabtrees’ were able to enter the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) as well as receive other financial assistance for seed plantings.

Starting an “unconventional” farming plan has posed some challenges to the operation. Both Doug and Anna work full-time jobs in Helena, driving four hours to farm in Havre on the weekends. “If we’re starting from scratch, we’re not buying herbicides and pesticides to import,” says Anna. “Nature tells us what to do.” This attitude, however, was not always welcome. “My neighbor worried about me growing rye, which is considered a weed in the wheat fields. I told him I was worried about his spray drifting over my crops,” says Doug. These issues have been solved by each neighbor installing buffer strips along their fence lines.

The expense of the equipment was another challenge that Vilicus Farms faced. They use various methods of tillage, including a chisel plow, moldboard plow, coil pack and noble blade plow. “The thing about organic is you have to get used to the weeds,” says Doug. Since Vilicus Farm uses no chemicals or sprays, they utilize tillage to control invasive plants.

The thing the Crabtrees called “a big experiment” has turned out fairly profitable. “It takes labor and management, but the return on every acre is greater,” says Doug. For example, their lentil crop is sold to Timeless Seeds, which produces a gourmet line of organic lentils and specialty grains. The Crabtrees sell their lentils, by the pound, at 60 cents a pound, that is $36 a bushel. They also market many of their products to Big Sky Organic Feed, located in Fort Benton, Mont. “Our goal is to grow low-yielding, high-value crops,” says Anna.

“We are just trying to do something better for the future,” says Doug. “We’re growing food, not some commodity.” These beginning farmers and ranchers have managed to turn an innovative idea into a sustainable reality.

Photo shows rangeland with crops and farmstead in background.
Strips of cropland are broken by pieces of native rangeland at Vilicus Farms, a certified organic farm.
Photo shows flowers such as prairie conflower and yarrow blossoming between crop fields.
A strip of pollinator-friendly flowers is grown between two crop fields. 
Photo shows clumps of aggregates in a handful of soil.
A handful of Vilicus Farms soil contains visible aggregates.