In mid-March there were snow drifts mingling in the Bitterroot Valley and still more snow in the surrounding mountains; despite the snow it was time to start planting vegetables. Laura Garber, bundled in layers of clothing and a wool hat, was in one of her greenhouses sorting out seedlings for planting. Laura owns and operates Homestead Organics, a small farm in Hamilton, Montana. She raises a variety of vegetables; poultry including ducks, chickens, and turkeys; and four pigs. Laura sells most of her meat, eggs, and vegetables through a CSA (community supported agriculture) group and the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. As morning passed and the sun moved across the sky, shining through high cirrus clouds and frozen air, Laura shed her layers and planted kale, chard and mustards along a drip hose. Accompanying her was the constant cluck and crow of hens and roosters from the neighboring greenhouse, where they were busy laying eggs, eating bugs, and fertilizing the soil.

Laura came to farming more or less accidentally. At the University of Montana she had a triple major: liberal studies, education, and German. While a student she worked at the PEAS (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) Farm, a campus-community farm, and this experience was her introduction to growing food. After the birth of her first child, she decided that she wanted an occupation where she could spend time with her family and farming seemed like a natural choice. She began with a small market garden and grew her business from there; 2002 was her first year running the farm with the intention of making her living from growing food. Though she originally began farming in order to stay home with her young children, the occupation has become a lifestyle she is not willing to give up. “It is such a joy,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy working with the earth and the plants and the seasons. I can’t imagine a better job. It’s in my blood I guess, and I’m addicted to it now. The thought of not being able to grow food, I don’t know what I would do with myself, and I don’t know how I could feel okay about all the food I was eating... It’s definitely become a life passion for me.”

As Laura continued to transplant greens and onions to the tune of chicken chatter, she talked about some of the challenges that face new famers, “I think financially it is a lot to ask of someone. The financial cost of starting up is pretty high, and having a realistic understanding of what the commitment means is a challenge.” But she also spoke philosophically about the value of agricultural work and the deeper joy and satisfaction it can bring. “If you’re interested in doing it and you’re motivated, there is no reason you can’t be successful, because success doesn’t necessarily have to be that you made a lot of money or grew a lot of food. That you found pleasure in your work I think is success also, and learned something for the next year. I don’t like our societal [attitude that] success is only if you are making money, because that’s important and it’s a part of farming, but it’s not my focus. I wish that for other people, too, that they could farm for the pleasure of it more than for the monetary gain they get from it.”

Finding and acquiring good agricultural land near population centers can be a challenge, and the Bitterroot Valley is no exception. Given the area’s proximity to recreational opportunities and larger towns, agricultural land here faces pressure from development as it is increasingly bought and subdivided for home sites and other projects. Highway 93 runs to the west of the farm and the signs of suburban sprawl spread against this black ribbon. But in this area facing development pressure, Laura acquired her property in a noteworthy way. “I bought this farm from a rancher who sold it to me on a handshake deal,” she said. “It took me over a year to figure out how to buy it financially, but he wanted to see it used for farming, not by any of the ten developers who were knocking on his door. He could have gotten a lot more money, but that wasn’t his intent, which is incredible.”