While they weeded their acre of onions, Jay Perret and Kristi Johnson, along with their volunteer Molly, passed the time by telling stories and making jokes. Jay’s quick wit and sarcasm made everyone laugh as they worked, and Kristi entertained with stories about her days in the Environmental Studies Graduate Program at the University of Montana. Lowdown Farm sits in the broad Flathead River Valley of Lake County, a county where over half of all land is in agricultural production. The farm is a 39-acre property, most of that acreage is in alfalfa and a few acres are dedicated to growing a variety of certified organic vegetables for customers in western Montana. Kristi and Jay sell onions to the Good Food Store in Missoula, a variety of herbs and vegetables at the Polson Farmers’ Market, and a few items through the Western Montana Growers Cooperative.

Farming had been Kristi’s dream for many years, and though she worked for other farmers before acquiring Lowdown Farm in 2008, transitioning to running her own business with Jay has been a process full of hard lessons and more unanswered questions. Kristi and Jay talked candidly about some hard truths that are often easy to overlook, most notably that it is often difficult for new farmers to make their business economically sustainable. “We’ve got a lot of figuring out to do as far as what we’re going to be able to grow and what amounts in order to make enough money, but also have some semblance of sanity without having to work other jobs,” Kristi said. “It’s been a huge learning curve, that’s for sure. We’re still on it, probably always will be.”

In addition to talking about their experience farming, Kristi and Jay also pointed to some of the larger issues that affect farming. “It’s a hard business. People bemoan the fact that there are not a lot of young farmers, but the economic reality is harsh,” Kristi said. Starting a small farm, like starting many small businesses, is hard work and making enough money in the beginning to pay bills and buy necessary infrastructure is difficult. Part of the difficulty in making a living from farming stems from the fact that consumers expect food to be inexpensive. Add to that the fact that farmers only receive about 19% of the price consumers pay for food, and most of what farmers do earn goes back into farm expenses. “I think these times are tough though,” Jay said. “You talk to our neighbors too and you’ll get the same story. They’re all running on operating loans from the banks… most farmers haven’t broke even from last year. It’s a tough way to make a living.”

At Lowdown Farm in late August the grasshoppers exploded from the dry grass, two ducks waddled and ran to catch as many grasshoppers as they could possibly eat, guinea hens gobbled and squawked in the large sunflower patch, and the irrigation spun long lines of water through the air and onto the alfalfa field. The farm was lovely: vegetables rows flowing into colorful patches of cut flowers, followed by a field of onions, and then an expanse of alfalfa stretching to where the valley floor meets the hills. Though owning and operating a farm has been challenging on many levels, Kristi and Jay are doing something fundamentally important; they grow food to feed their neighbors—onions to Missoula, tomatoes to Polson, basil to the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative. Kristi talked about some of the things that keep them coming back to farming, such as the relationships she has developed with her customers, the pride and satisfaction of growing good food, how physically strong they have become from this type of work, and the joy of a mid-day swim under the blanket of August heat. “Farming is very hard,” Kristi said, “but it’s also beautiful.”

The future is in some ways uncertain for Kristi and Jay. At this point they either need to grow their business and make it work or try something else. Currently they’re between market gardening and a mid-scale operation, which makes it hard to figure out a balance and make a living. Despite the challenges, Kristi is optimistic about the future of farming and proud of the type of farm they have built, “Our generation and younger will make changes and slowly things will be different,” she said. “And I guess that’s part of wanting to do this style of farming. Even though it’s so labor intensive, it does feel like the right thing to do, the right kind of food to be producing.”