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Montana seed growers 'sow' importance of organic farming

By D’Jeane Peters

Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree discuss soil health with NRCS Soil Conservationist Amy Kaiser.
Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree discuss soil health with NRCS Soil Conservationist Amy Kaiser.
Patches of flowers attract pollinators to the Crabtree’s farm, which helps pollination of the crops they grow.

Patches of flowers attract pollinators to the Crabtree’s farm, which helps pollination of the crops they grow.

When Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree founded Vilicus Farms in 2009, they snagged the farm’s name from Latin, as “vilicus” means steward. Anna and Doug are definitely stewards of their 1,200-acre organic farm near Havre, Mont.

In a region where wheat is the primary crop and stretches as far as the eye can see, Vilicus Farms is unique. They work on a five-year rotation of about 15 different crops, including flax, lentils, oats, red spring wheat, durum, sweet clover, vetch, peas, rye, winter wheat, buckwheat, safflower, sunflower, spring peas and chickling vetch.

The farm is divided into strips about one mile long and 240 feet wide, and the Crabtrees grow one crop in each strip. Between the strips are untilled sections of native grazing land that serve as buffers to catch snow in the winter for added moisture.

“I want to challenge the idea that chemical-dependent farming is conventional,” Doug Crabtree said.

Vilicus Farms was able to receive technical and financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service as they worked on planning their operation. They enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program as organic and beginning farmers.

CSP helps conservation-minded farmers and ranchers take their lands to a higher level of sustainable agriculture. The program is now in its sixth year and so far, NRCS has partnered with farmers and ranchers to enroll more than 59 million acres across the nation, including farms like Vilicus Farms.

“NRCS was a huge help that was part of financial startup,” Anna Crabtree said.

Starting an “unconventional” farming plan can be tough, but the couple persisted, even though they work full-time jobs in Helena, Mont., 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,” Anna Crabtree said. “Nature tells us what to do.”

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,” Doug Crabtree said. Since Vilicus Farm uses no chemicals or sprays, they use tillage to control invasive plants.

The farm the pair called “a big experiment” has been profitable. 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, and 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. “We are just trying to do something better for the future,” Doug Crabtree said. “We’re growing food, not some commodity.”