In St. Ignatius it is impossible to ignore the Mission Mountains. Even on an overcast day they are there to the east, rising out of sight into the low hanging clouds. On a clear day they dominate the valley, indeed they dominate the entire surrounding landscape. At the base of the Missions sits Foothill Farm where Julie Pavlock, in 2010, was in her sixth season of farming.

As a teenager and young adult, agriculture was often a part of Julie’s life. In high school she worked on farms whenever she could, and after completing a degree at the University of Montana in Missoula, she and her husband, Ben, moved to New York City where she helped start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group and a community garden. Even though she found agriculture compelling and was drawn to it, having her own farm never seemed like a tangible dream. Eventually though she took a step that would change farming from a dream to something she felt confident about pursuing; she attended the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an educational experience aimed at teaching sustainable farming skills (or ecological horticulture) to people interested in starting an agricultural business. “My whole life changed after that,” she said. “It was like, of course, this is totally it! It just changed my whole perspective.” After completing the program at UC Santa Cruz, Julie and Ben began looking for a place to farm, and coming back to Montana felt like a natural choice. “My sister moved here and it just started to feel more like home.” Julie said. “I always wanted to come back here. We decided we loved Montana so much and we wanted to be sort of close to Missoula, and this area was a place we could still afford. That’s how we got here.”

At the base of the Missions amid ranches, hay fields, an Amish community and various other agriculturalists, Julie grows a variety of vegetables and raises a diverse array of livestock on 70 acres. Most of the acreage is dedicated to hay and pasture for the small herd of beef cattle. On about four acres Julie grows vegetables ranging from tomatoes to winter squash to garlic, her largest crop. Most of the vegetables are sold to customers though a CSA group operated by the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The Growers Coop pools the produce of small growers in western Montana and sells it to retail outlets and the CSA. Julie is on the board of the coop and initiated creating the CSA.

Julie sells the beef from her cattle to local customers, but the other animal products like pork, milk, eggs, and cheese are for family use. Though the livestock are not a primary economic focus, the animals are an important part of the farm ecosystem. The flock of chickens are moved over fields where they contribute important nutrients to the soil; the pigs turn the compost pile by doing what pigs love to do, digging; and cow and horse manure cycles nitrogen back into the system. Though they play the role of adding diversity and cycling nutrients, the animals also bring a lot of joy to farm work. Julie and her father, Tom (who also lives on the property along with Julie’s mother), work together raising the animals, which include Cubby, her daughter’s miniature horse; Dolly, a milk cow; a collection of beef cattle; laying hens; a rooster or two; two pigs; and a horse. For Julie working with the animals is probably her favorite aspect of farming, and for the first five years at the farm Julie used draft horses as her primary means of cultivating the fields. However, this year in order to spend more time with her family and create a more streamlined operation, she chose to sell the draft horses and use a tractor instead. This was a difficult decision and though she hopes to bring draft horses back one day, for now it makes sense. She explained, “It seemed right for me and it seemed right for them. They weren’t getting what they wanted, they are born to work on a farm. They love it, they would be so disappointed if they couldn’t work.”

Running a farm for the first time has had its share of learning moments. “I want to say the first three, but really the first five years, it was so hard to figure out exactly what to grow and how to market it, and… just what works for me and what is worth my time,” Julie said. This long learning curve makes farming unique. If a farmer thinks they can improve growing a crop of tomatoes, that innovation takes a whole season to shake out. If it doesn’t work, a farmer must wait until next season to try something new. It took Julie four years before her farm made money. But what successful small business owners do best is innovate, change, and find ways to make their businesses efficient and profitable. Farmers change things up each year, and Julie will keep on changing things until she finds the right balance for her farm, “I’m trying to make it a little more sane so I can last farming,” she said. “Because just the five years we’ve been here, it’s been so hard I don’t think I could keep that up for 30 years, but I want to.”