In early August Brain Wirak and Kaly Hess’ tomato plants were bushy, big, and growing strong. The tomatoes had just started to ripen and the bushes were threatening to take over the rows and move into the pathways. Kaly and Brian walked down the long rows together, implementing a method of tomato wrangling known as the Florida Weave. Tomato wrangling, or trellising as it is more commonly called, keeps tomato plants and fruits up off the ground, thereby reducing rot and conserving space. The Florida Weave employs weaving twine between tomato plants and large stakes set within the rows. It is an efficient, cheap, and effective way to trellis a large number of plants. Kaly and Brian are quite good at the Florida Weave and within an hour or so the tomatoes had been trellised, hopefully for the final time of the season.

Kaly and Brain are the owners and operators of Harlequin Produce. They are landless farmers so to speak; they lease rather than own property. In 2010 they leased about seven acres at properties in Arlee and Dixon, where they grew a variety of vegetables, which they sold through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and at the Clark Fork River Market in Missoula. The land they lease was previously in vegetable production so in many ways they are capitalizing on the work and development the farmer landowners did in years past. Renting land has its advantages and disadvantages. Developing good soil long term, incorporating livestock into the system, or planting perennial crops might be fruitless on leased land. On the other hand, they are able to experiment with farming as an occupation without being tied to the financial pressures associated with having a mortgage. “We can’t emphasize enough the generosity of the people we lease from. It’s such a great way to incubate, to help new farmers begin,” Kaly said. “We’ve made all these mistakes, learned all this stuff, so if we ever do get our own land, we are so much ahead.”

Both Kaly and Brian grew up in Montana and studied agroecology and agronomy respectively at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. While a student, Kaly started Townes Harvest, a three-acre, educational vegetable farm at MSU. Since then they both worked on a few different farms before starting their own operation. In 2010, they began their third season of farming on their own and they bring much of their educational background into the field with them. This education helps them better understand plant nutrient requirements and the ecological interactions happening on a farm. But much of their practical knowledge comes from experience, keen observation, and lessons learned while working for other farmers.

August in Montana is high production time for the vegetables many people love to eat: peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. In order to ripen, these plants need high temperatures to warm the soil. In Montana’s short growing season, growing and ripening these vegetables can be a challenge. In order to help lengthen the growing season and capitalize on warm temperatures, Kaly and Brian use two strategies, floating row cover (often called remay) to cover the plants at the beginning and end of the season, and black plastic as a mulch to keep weeds down and more importantly to capture and retain warmth in the soil. Kaly and Brian are certified organic growers and concerned about sustainability, but as Brian pointed out, “So much value is put on environmental sustainability but really there’s three main parts, you’ve got economic and social sustainable [too].” They use black plastic and row cover, petroleum products, which may seem environmentally unsustainable. “If we didn’t use these tools we might not be able to even be farmers, we might be interested in doing so, but if we only make a couple hundred bucks in a summer …” Brian began. “We can’t do that,” Kaly concluded. She continued, “So we do [other] things to try to offset as much as we can. We have what could become perennial clover strips, so we have huge chunks of this field that wouldn’t need to be tilled again next year, which is a major carbon savings.” Their work is about balance. They try to keep input costs low, work efficiently, and be good stewards of the land. But when it comes to sustainability, there is no clear path to making everything balance, to making the business sustainable on all three levels. “It’s just not black and white,” Brian said. “People really polarize to ideals and when you shut yourself down like that and you’re not able to see the spectrum, it’s problematic.”

At some point they would like to purchase property, but as Brian points out, “It sounds like you’re nuts when you’re trying to buy land with vegetables in western Montana.” For now they are taking farming one season at a time. Next year they will farm entirely at Common Ground Farm in Arlee. But beyond that, Kaly said, “I just don’t even know, but at the same time we keep having opportunities come up that allow us to keep farming. We keep taking those opportunities to keep farming. We keep talking about farming. We just can’t seem to be like yes, we want to be farmers for a long time…it’s just this scary huge commitment to say it.”