Montana State student farm offers real-life experience

This interdisciplinary degree “promotes sustainable production, distribution and consumption of food and bioenergy by growing a new generation of leaders through collaborative learning and hands-on experience.” Students enrolling in the program have the option of doing so through four different departments on campus: livestock and animal range sciences; crop sciences; agroecology; and health and human development dietetics. “Those are all different departments on campus that send students our way, and it’s proving to be a phenomenal mix of interests and talent,” says Charles Holt, production manager at Towne’s Harvest Garden and the person charged with ensuring that students experience every component of the farm’s operation, from planting right through harvest and sales of the produce. The practicum is a sophomore (200 level) course, and students get 135 hours of service on the farm in a 15-week period, he explains.

As with many relative new farms, Towne’s Harvest Garden makes do with the equipment it has – here, students plow a row of potatoes. The goal of the program is to provide a realistic look at what goes into making a farm sustainable, both environmentally and financially.

Towne’s Harvest Garden ( was initiated five years ago by a student club called Friends of Local Foods that was devoted to promoting the nutritional and social benefits of local foods systems. That remains the focus, but the scope of the undertaking has become much larger, explains Holt, who was hired two years ago as the first full-time farm manager. “Really, the name garden is a misnomer – it’s now definitely a farm,” he says. “We’re actively producing food on 5 acres.” In addition, this year, as part of a sustainability initiative, animal inclusion was incorporated using sheep and poultry for precision grazing and free-range egg sales.

As the scale of the farm has grown, so too has the market for its produce. Early on, the students sold the produce at local farmers’ markets. More recently, the farm has focused on selling to an 80-member CSA, as well as at a local farmers’ market and an on-campus farmers’ market aimed at Montana State University students and faculty. Since an important part of the practicum is for students to learn real-life farming lessons, Holt says that marketing and sales efforts continue to expand. “On a long-term basis, for a really viable farm system, even in a sustainable production model, you still have to address bulk sales,” he states. “Starting this year, we now have a contract with our own MSU [campus] food services department. We’re now selling our product directly to them.”

The principles and practices of the farm make it sustainable environmentally, but the goal is also to make Towne’s Harvest Farm sustainable as a business, Holt emphasizes. “Now that we’re truly an educational farm, there are three components to Towne’s Harvest Garden,” he notes. “There’s obviously an education component; there’s also a research component; and then there’s an actual production component.” To that end, the farm publishes reports every year demonstrating the economic viability of different marketing strategies and structures. This gives students a sense of the importance of growing, as well as selling the produce. “We show students that, through integration, it is possible to profit. But in this high altitude and this high latitude, any one component of this farm operation generally doesn’t profit as well – it takes integration.”

One thing is for certain: there has been an incredible demand from students to learn about sustainable farming and healthy foods. “The goal was to have 50 students enrolled in our degree program in five years; we now hit 80 in just our second year,” says Holt, who previously farmed in his native Georgia and in Montana.

Students clean carrots and garlic at a field wash station. The goal is for students to perform or witness every aspect of the farm’s operation, from planting to harvest to sales.

The sheer number of students interested has led to the unexpected challenge of managing the number of students working on the farm during the spring and fall. To help, a fall practicum was added, making Towne’s Harvest Garden a three-season enterprise. “We make sure that we manage the farm with no more than four to five people per day,” Holt notes. This is to ensure that the operation remains realistic to real-world circumstances. “We’re trying to prove to someone leaving MSU with this degree that if they find one or two interns and maybe hire one part-time staff person, they could realistically farm 5 acres,” explains Holt.

On the farm, the students do it all. “They probably do more labor than they care to do,” jokes Holt. “It’s much different than a sit-down lecture. Here, they’re going to work so they can understand the full spectrum of the experience.”

While all students will perform or witness every aspect of the farm’s management, Holt says his goal is to tailor the experience to each student, depending on what he or she wants to take away from working on the farm. For those interested in becoming farm owners and farm managers, extra internship opportunities are made available at Towne’s Harvest Garden year-round. “That way they don’t miss out on any component of the farm’s operation,” says Holt. These students are also given opportunities to operate tractors and other equipment.

There also are individual projects for each student to complete, and this provides an opportunity to take advantage of unique skills and interests. “We have electrical engineers and architects who have built a very cool combination sustainable chicken coop/greenhouse and have installed a passive solar hot water system,” he explains. “We have other people who just want to hoe weeds, so they’ll run the crews for that. We try to find things that match their individual agendas and let each student decide the track they take.”

One challenge has been managing expectations. “A lot of students enter this program with no agricultural background and expect to leave being a fully qualified farm manager. But it’s important to understand that it takes a career’s worth of education in this field,” says Holt. About one-third of the students enrolled in the program are planning for a career in farming, he estimates. “Many of the others are interested in being policy makers or business owners involved in sustainable components.”

In order to ensure sustainability, the goal is to make the farm’s offerings as diverse as possible. “The majority of our crops consist of carrots and beets and potatoes. Those are very high-volume crops for us because that’s what our climate here is best suited for,” says Holt. “But we also address cold frame production of celery, and we grow an enormous variety of winter squash, as well as jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, cucumbers, summer squash and tons and tons of greens.” There are three cold frames on the farm, as well as greenhouse structures. “Those are only heated by solar, but we can do season extension through that and row covers,” he states.

The produce is grown organically, and now that Holt is going into his third season on the farm he is currently filing paperwork with the Montana Department of Agriculture for organic certification. This is being done in part to help secure future grants that might require certification and thereby help ensure the longevity of the farm program.

A student uses a chisel plow to prepare a field for fall cover cropping at Towne’s Harvest Garden at Montana State University.

Towne’s Harvest Garden continues to evolve in other ways, as well. “We’re in our infancy, and we really don’t have much infrastructure,” says Holt. “We are so young and we’re growing so quickly. We’ve inherited some old tractors and some bits and pieces of equipment, and I found some free chisel plows that I’ve customized for our row spacing for in-row cultivation; and we have a rototiller for seedbed preparation.” He’s incorporated minimum tillage practices and cover cropping to try to rebuild soil that had been “pulverized” by past rototilling practices. “And I have a wish list a mile long of equipment that would help us,” adds Holt.

At the top of his list are a spader and additional discs and tools for various spacings, as well as root diggers and transplanters for crops like carrots. “These would improve efficiency and soil treatment,” he explains, but points out that making do with the equipment available is another important real-life lesson for aspiring farmers.

To help ensure that students receive a well-rounded look at farm operations, students are exposed to the practices of other farms. For example, faculty advisors take students on an overnight trip to the northern part of Montana to tour a sustainable, certified organic, large-scale producer. “It’s a highly integrated operation with cereal and legume rotations,” says Holt of Bob Quinn’s (Kamut International) 2,400-acre farm. Students also get to see other small-scale operations through a requirement to work one day each week at one of seven other CSA farms in the area. “It’s important for them to see and understand the differences in the ways that different farms operate,” says Holt. “Every farm takes on the personality of the farmer and the land.”

Holt says that perhaps the hallmark – the personality – of Towne’s Harvest Garden is the fact that it brings together so many disciplines, from farming to nutrition to science and so on. “It’s all student-driven, and it’s all social demand that’s causing it,” he observes. “It’s been very exciting to see it and be a part of it.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.