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Success Story

The Root of Community

How One Montana Family is Nurturing the Soil—and Their Neighbors
Publish Date
Tub filled with just-harvested radishes and kale.

From lush vegetables lining high tunnels, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes ready for pickup by neighbors, and community workshops, Living Root Farm provides an opportunity for the local community “to come out to see and taste and appreciate local-grown food.”

Watch their story on YouTube: Conservation for the Future: Nurturing Neighbors at Living Root Farm, Big Horn County, MT

Just east of Hardin, Montana, on the banks of the Bighorn River, a family works their farm like so many others have in this area for generations. But look closer at what the Van Orders are doing here at Living Root Farm—at the lush vegetables lining the high tunnels, the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes being picked up by neighbors and community members - it’s clear that things here follow a different path.

“We’ve been so disconnected over the years to where our food comes from. People are rediscovering that and they’re excited about it.” says Evan Van Order, who runs Living Root Farm along with his wife Terri and the help of their children. “To be able to provide that opportunity for our community to come out to see and also taste and appreciate local-grown food, that’s been huge.”

Terri and Evan have been working at growing the farm and educating others since moving there in 2007. “I think our farm and community agriculture have been beneficial so people can actually learn where their food comes from,” says Terri. 

“Instead of thinking ‘I can just go to the grocery store and buy this head of lettuce,’ to come out and see how a head of lettuce is actually grown can be very valuable, especially for young children.”

A True Family Farm

Adults and children look at the vegetables growing in a high tunnel.
NRCS Bozeman Area Agronomist Allison Milodragovich (background) with landowners Terri Van Order (C) and Evan Van Order (R) with daughter. This high tunnel helps them to extend the growing season, which allows for growing more diverse crops for a longer time.

The Van Order children have certainly gained more firsthand knowledge of food systems than the average kids their age.  Their oldest child, Myah, has already moved out and started a family of her own, but her younger siblings still have a firm hand in the farm. 

Joel helps with much of the planting and harvesting when he’s home from college. Kiana takes ownership of the tomatoes, growing, pruning, and harvesting their entire crop. She also plays a major role with the horses and livestock. Even the younger siblings, Aden and Aubreyella, help significantly on the farm with planting, weeding, and caring for the animals. 

The Van Order’s have also opened their home to 11 foster children over the years, who were able to experience a unique opportunity to gain first-hand practice in agriculture.

“It’s been a joy to watch my children grow and love it,” says Terri. “They’ve learned a lot of responsibility from being out here.”

Young Aubreyella says her favorite vegetable is salad, and that her favorite thing about the farm is, “horsies.” She spends nearly every day surrounded by the bustling life of a farm, and every day her passion for that life grows. 

“They Bring People Back to the Land”

Family and community are the heart of all the exciting offerings on Living Root Farm—both the produce and the programs. And the community has taken notice.

“They’re some of the most generous and community-driven people that I’ve had the privilege to meet,” says Allison Milodragovich, the Bozeman Area Agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “Evan is always willing to share his knowledge with anybody.”

“Community agriculture is important, in particular in a small, isolated place like this for access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Milodragovich continues. “Having access to delicious and nutritious food is really important.”

The Van Order’s impact is felt in other ways besides their produce. “Farms like this can really be a driver for the local economy. Every dollar you spend with a local farm is twice as impactful as it is if you spend it in the grocery store,” Milodragovich explains.

“Socially, they’re really important as well. Evan and Terri have people come out here, they bring people back to the land and it just brings people together who maybe wouldn’t normally be together.”

One of the most impactful programs Living Root Farm participate in is called Farm to School, which supplies area schools with fresh vegetables for classes and lunches. “Kale was the first thing for some of the educational things they do in the classrooms. Then after that, we started working with their food program and their salad bars in particular,” says Evan.

“We provide lettuce greens, radishes, cucumbers are really popular, and cherry tomatoes. That’s really been a great partnership because they pay us for the vegetables and it’s a fair price and it helps us to have a place to go. Especially in the fall semester at the end of the season, we still have an abundance of crops here so it’s good to have that outlet and it’s going right to our kids from our community.”

Building a Community of Resources

As they grew, so did the interest in their operation. The increased demand meant that the Van Orders needed to find ways to boost their farm output sustainably. For help, they turned to the local office of the NRCS, a program from the USDA which supports farmers with financial and technical assistance.

“We expanded our garden area, and we also pursued the high tunnel initiative for the NRCS, and we were able to purchase and build the high tunnels to increase our production that way,” says Evan. They also worked with the NRCS to install micro-irrigation systems in the high tunnels to make an effective, efficient use of water for their sheltered crops.

Evan knew about the aid available from NRCS because the family originally moved to Hardin in 2002 when he took a job with the agency. “I started off as a technician here in the Hardin field office, then became a soil conservationist, and now recently I’ve moved over in the last couple years to being a Tribal conservationist for the Crow Tribe for the NRCS.” 

Evan works closely with neighboring communities, all requiring different support and running unique operations. Through this experience, he learns even more about new opportunities that he can bring back to his own farm.

“Working with NRCS is what really introduced me to the soil health principles and working with the farmers and ranchers here in the county.” That experience is what led the Van Orders to practice no-till gardening, which boosts soil health by limiting disturbances. It’s part of the five soil health principles followed here on Living Root Farm.

Milodragovich describes the soil health principles as, “soil armoring or cover, reducing disturbance, keeping a living root, increasing plant diversity, and integrating livestock.” These practices help decrease soil temperature, increase moisture retention, and maintain a healthy microbial community in the soil. 

The more microbes that can be found in the soil, the healthier those crops growing in that soil will be. Healthier crops are more nutrient dense, so the people who eventually consume that produce get more nutritional benefits from it. 

The Van Order’s work creates an unbroken chain of health: healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy people.

Seeing the System Work

The Van Orders are committed to education and outreach, hosting workshops on soil health at Living Root Farm and travelling for hours to facilitate classes around the area. They have a true passion for wanting to share their experiences with people who may otherwise never have the chance to learn about these opportunities. 

However, continuing to help their local communities is somewhat still a primary driving force behind their work on the farm. Their CSA boxes are popular, not just among the Hardin locals, but for chefs of local fishing lodges along the Big Horn River. They have so many opportunities to meet new people and learn others’ stories. 

“We just get to sometimes have some really great conversations and interact,” says Terri. “Farmers’ market is a special time. We harvest things and we bring it over to the market in our cooler trailer, and we just get to talk to people in the community all evening long. It’s a family event. All of our kids participate.”

Evan also views the family’s life on Living Root Farm holistically. “For us, it’s really about seeing the system work, and working not against nature, but with it. We’re really intense growing in the small square footage that we have, but we’re producing a lot.” 

That production is more than just nutrient-rich, delicious vegetables: it’s knowledge that’s shared with producers, communities brought together, and a family cultivating their future.

More Information

To learn more about NRCS conservation assistance, please visit your local service center or NRCS - Montana.

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