So I’ve been working on getting a guest from this organization for a long time, and I think we got the perfect person from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Andrew Malucelli, from Ronan about 150 miles south of me, 120 miles south, 60 miles north of Missoula.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I work for the NRCS, I’m just gonna use the acronym. I’ve been with agency for about 10 years. As you mentioned I’m currently working out of Ronan which is the field office for Lake county. Most rural counties around the US have an NRCS office located there, so as your listening today can go their local office. I’m what they call a soil conversationist basically I assist farmers and ranchers in the county on conversation based improvements on the land.
Our goal, the agency started back in the dust bowl and we wanted to keep the soil from blowing away. Since then we’ve kind of expanded our scope and thus our name changed as Natural Resources, meaning that we’ll address any type of resource on the landscape besides just trying to keep the soil from blowing away.
On a voluntary basis producers will come to us for assistance. I can provide them technical assistance for free anytime. Then we also have financial assistance programs in addition to the technical assistance to help them achieve their conservation improvements and goals for their particular operation.
That’s kind of my NRCS side, in addition to that I’m an organic farmer, as well. My wife and I farm, it’s called Dancing Boy Farm here in Arlee Montana about 30 miles south of Ronan where my office is. We sell primarily through wholesale. We’re part of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative. There are 42, I believe, farms. So we don’t have to do farmer’s market and things like that, since both of us have full time jobs off the farm, being able to sell it wholesale is much easier and fits into our schedule. So we grow a variety of vegetables for the coop, which then sells them and markets them for us and distributes them throughout Montana.
You have to tell me more about that? I never heard of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative How does that work? I never heard of that before. How does somebody get involved in that.
Well, not too long ago, some farmers got together that we producing vegetables here in NW Montana and wanted to have some additional markets to sell their goods. So kind of created this coop of growers. So we became a member of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative, I think this is our fifth season, and basically the coop sells the produce for us through local grocery stores, to the University of Montana, Montana State University, local hospitals, schools, things like that. They handle all the distribution, marketing, selling of the product.
For us farmers what we have to do is grow a good product, and we post 2xs a week what we have to sell, and then the coop, tries and sells it for us. What they sell, then we deliver at strategic points at Polson down into Hamilton. Luckily there’s actually a drop off point can see from the farm, so it’s quite close for us, then they do the distribution.
So who does the distribution? One of the other farmers? or is there a person? That sounds too cool!
There’s a paid staff, they handle all the marketing, we have some of our own trucks, we also piggy back with a couple of other distributers to distribute the products we sell, not just the vegetables, but we also sell meat and dairy eggs, things like that.
Not necessarily all organic, the majority of us growers are organic. There are few that are not, but last year we had over $1 million in sales. So it’s definitely grown quite a bit over the years.
Do you have to sell your stuff for a lot less then if you’re selling it wholesale? Are you still able to make a living that way?
Your right do sell it for less. If we were selling it at farmers market might get 2xs as much. Of course you got one sale day, you are probably not gonna sell everything you have, but sometimes you might not. With this we still make a profit and still do well. We obviously save on labor and time to not have to market the product ourselves.
Since orders are combined with all of the other farms, especially us because we farm less then an acre, so we would have a harder time selling to restaurants and grocery stores because we don’t have the quantity. Whereas when we combine with our other growers 1 box of spinach becomes 30 boxes of spinach! So that works out very well!
Awesome! I’ll bet a lot of people head’s are spinning, because that would be a potential way to get into farming that are intimidated by the whole process. I know with my husband and I we can barely produce enough for us, we barely have extra. Because it seems like even this year with our mini farm we planted it wouldn’t be enough to go to market or run a CSA or something.
We do reach up on the south end of Kalispell, have a couple of farms that have become members. It’s a great model, I’d like to see expand. It’s fairly unique, definitely unique for Montana. They’re trying to start something similar down by Bozeman.
I think that’s a great business model, I’d like to see grow all over the USA, but especially in Montana!
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
No, I grew up in Northern California in a suburb of San Francisco, went to the grocery store to get groceries. I really didn’t have any knowledge of it.
didn’t start growing anything for myself till I was an adult
more from an environmental and health sense then from a farming background. I really had a strong environmental ethic. Environmental issues were really important to me when I was in my 20s. I wanted to eventually work in an environmental field, maybe a non-profit or maybe a government agency which is what it turned out to be.
more from the environmental
reduce our impact on the land and to improve the environment that we live. I started to key in on agriculture and private land management
looking at the trees and wanting to save every tree to thinking where there’s a need for sustainability and where we see the most damage, often times its subtle, you see it over many decades,
not an oil spill that is really sudden. I went back to grad school and took a lot of
received a degree in natural resource management
sustainability and ag courses. The goal of this agency is to help private land owners
and reduce their impact on the land and the environment. So it’s a pretty good match. So from that I started working with producers in Bozeman. I kind of started my own garden
met my future wife and we ended up moving up to Arlee, Montana. Where I took a different position with the NRCS.
working with the growers with the grower’s coop
area I wanted to work in was organic agriculture, more smaller scale and local produced, more locally distributed as well, healthy food essentially
working with those growers and provide them technical assistance, many times I was probably learning more from them then they were learning form me, I realized I wanted to do more on a larger scale, on
be able to provide not on the the tech experience from school and from trainings and also from first hand experience.
even when they’re not the organic producers
I can related to them much more then some government bureaucrat just coming out to tell them what to do.
been very rewarding
struggled the first year, and the second year and figured things
I really like the way you talk about getting the first hand knowledge of understanding your clients better by having your own place.
I wanna tie that back in, when we decided to start farming on a production scale, we probably would not have been as successful or been able to do it for, it’s our fifth season, not a long time, but given as it’s a side portion of our work
we obtained a contract with the NRCS and were able to put up a high tunnel a 22 square foot high tunnel and we were able to get financial assistance to put in a drip system so we can
for our field crops
its all automated
financial assistance to do some cover cropping both in the tunnel and out in the field.
soil sampling with financial assistance
around our field borders to improve habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects.
financial assistance to basically get our farm up and running a lot quicker to be profitable and productive then it would be otherwise
what is available for producers even when they are as small as we are. I have some that are small like us on an acre and I have some that have 10k
any of the products
producing something for market.
When you say producing for market? Do you have to already have to have customers etc?
not like a grant process
don’t have to show financials
set up your farm with the farm service agency, what that does is it puts your farm on the map. You tell them what you produce, or if you donate all the food that you produce, if it’s not your primary source of income
technical and financial assistance
producing an agricultural product whether it be one cow or a 1000 cows, it essentially qualifies you since you are growing on the land and you are having an effect on the environment.
Also is there a special thing for veterans? Cause my husband’s a veteran.
additional benefits if you are beginning farmer
haven’t farmed fro 10 consecutive years, or veteran farmers or people who have been socially disadvantaged
couple of different benefits
can increase the amount of cost share for an individual
don’t pay 100% of cost pay a percentage of the total cost of what it would be
more buy in on your side
veterans would get ranked ahead of other projects.
they have their own
projects will get a ranking priority
It’s a competitive process, so if you apply your project will be ranked against all the other projects in the county. So
if there isn’t a lot for us to help out with. Whereas if you are interested in addressing more resources on the land your project will more bump ahead.
one of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast now, is because we do have a deadline coming up on the 19th of February for organic growers or people interested in putting up a seasonal high tunnel or a drip system in the tunnel
The organic program has a whole host of practices
row crops and planting trees
2 programs that have a deadline coming up that if folks are interested in Financial assistance, we have technical assistance you can get anytime, but we do have theses deadlines coming up for Financial Assistance
So let me make sure, this is anywhere in the USA?
once a year …
it’s a government website
can go to programs
easiest things to do,
find your local office
find the local office in your county, just about any county in the US,
just walk in or give them call
application takes a few minutes, mostly your name and a few check boxes what you’re doing, one thing that is different about our office from a grant program
most is done by your agent behind the scenes by whoever is assistance.
You kind of compared
it’s a payment, again another difference with a gran. First you would get a contract. Second you would install a high tunnel, then NRCS comes out and takes a look at it.
flat rate high tunnel
putting in a drip system
get paid at the end
regardless of the cost is to you.
you know when you sign your contract, which can be up to 6 years in length
initially purchase and finance it in some way you would pay for it and install it.
That’s how I found out about you, is one of my guests, I thin Ron Hanson and then I went down to Lower Valley Farm for a tour and I think I met, Angel, and I think they had gotten their tunnels from you.
What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?
Organic is more of a term and a label. I kind of look at organic certification as sort of a minimum bar
following organic standards
entail crop rotation
good soil management practices
habitat for beneficials wildlife habitat
some of it is sort of vague there is n’t’ concrete ways to measure, for me
assuming you know the grower,
organic on our farm is growing without the use of prohibitive substances
we don’t use any insecticides, there are organic insecticides and herbicides you can use, for us we try to grow more as a system and more in tune with nature
often see in smaller growers, not so much in the larger, corporate run organic farms might be just meeting the minimum bar
the growers who you know
opportunity to do a farm tour to learn first hand how they are growing if they are trying to grow more in balance with nature and fighting tools that are not very sustainable
don’t use a lot of tillage
so something is growing on our fields most of the year in our fields and I see that with other growers as well, utilizing living roots as part of a biological system. That leads me more to what ecology means
agronomic systems and how to grow food for sale in a way that is more in balance and is less laborious and has less inputs, less outside inputs hopefully.
we don’t have any livestock
kind of the missing key
on our farm for a number of vegetable producers
missing that livestock component
that we historically used to have
instead of having livestock
or trucking that in
when your looking at a giant corn field in Iowa and you have to import
that would be the one area I’d like to see us get to
utilize our cover crops so it provides them with their feed so it kind of returns that back to the land so we have more of a closed loop
So that’s what my husband wants to do too.
Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?
It really was more on the environmental side. I ended up, IDK what movie it was about the meat industry that I became a vegetarian for a year and a half.
early 20s as to what was the common farming practices out there,
really woke me up
research and reading about how we grow our crops and how that effects us nutritionally
still not having a lot of knowledge myself at the time, the easiest way for me, to feel like I was mitigating what I was seeing was to key in on certified organic products
sought out where I could find, basically everything that I purchased was gonna be certified organic or if it was from Farmers market that grower was following organic practices. Even though at the time I didn’t even know what standards what they meant
didn’t understand the additional benefits to the landscape and in terms of the environment and wildlife
more on an environmental and health side then anything else.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
I think part of it was in school later on I did go back to school and took ag courses. I spent a little time on an organic farm and learned more about what it meant. Then I just read the organic standard, when I started working for the NRCS and
using my purchasing power, I wanted to know more about what it meant.
if I was gonna be working to
do have producers who have transitioned while I have been assisting them. We’re not a certifying agency and not a regulatory agency, but I felt it was
important to understand what it really meant
read fact sheets
to gain that knowledge and background
organic systems plan for our farm
going through that systems plan, really then I could key in on what was required and what was behind the organic standards eventually.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
For us, its taken a number of year but we’ve kind of figured out what grows well and what fits well in our schedules. That
Wife’s a teacher so she’s off in the summers so she does most of the farming in the summer.
So for sale we probably grow six or seven crops that fit in that schedule. Last year they all did well, the only crop that didn’t do well was the peas and that was because we had 100 º weather in June and they basically just fried on the vine.
what we try to do
focus more on ourselves
grow some crops
always grow for ourselves while we have stuff for sale
even though we put more into expanding our personal garden the grasshoppers decided they liked that too. We had an epidemic of grasshoppers out here, I’ve never seen anything like it.
strip plants to the stem
crops that we grew for sale didn’t turn out to the be palatable. For our own personal crops
So are you gonna tell us what the corps that you grow for the coop are?
narrowed down to
in the spring
in the tunnel in a few weeks
green leaf head lettuce. Basically what we do is we will cover crop half of the high tunnel with peas and oats in a couple of weeks
then come May or so well be harvesting the head lettuce, and I’ll be terminating the cover crop
wife does that during the summer
pull up the lettuce
cover crop that half
which will be lettuce in sept
so we’ll do the head lettuce twice.
outside our field crops
primarily 3 types of summer squash, a pattypan, a zucchini and crookneck.
most of those like the cherry tomatoes and peas
they’re upright so we’re not doing a lot of bending over. There’s just the two of us.
squash are very easy to harvest
varieties don’t have al to of spines. The head lettuce
is fairly simple as well. We used to do looseleaf spinach but it was just too much with the double washing
took too much time
out there with the headlamp
go in harvest on my way to work
I am curious how come green leaf?
well because we grew a variety
let’s just do it again
red leaf then a green leaf
IDK that red leaf is more nutrient dense then green leaf?
That kind of leads to and I would suggest this to anyone
just starting out
what works on your land
in your schedule
We did a lot of trial and error, we grew a lot of crops,
have to grow good looking crops
do well here, don’t require a lot of work now
got those figured out
find out what works on your place, and grow a lot and grow it well.
I like that because we could grow a lot of cherry tomatoes.
the way the grower’s coop works, there’s a seniority system, there’s already a lot of growers growing the regular tomatoes.
that’s kind of dictated there’s been an opening there’s already growing
for some of crops
not enough growers
if we went in to move 2000 lbs of bell peppers they wouldn’t be able to do that, because there’s already growers doing that. All of that is decided this time of year
we let them know what we want to grow
there isn’t too many surprises
we already know the 6-7 crops we already grow.
I was thinking that I already interviewed two guys from Arlee, David Wolverton and Roy Mills.
And Sarah Harding From Buggy Road Farm talked about selling asparagus. I just love this grower’s coop idea! That’s just the greatest thing!
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
A better year on our own crop.
Hope that grasshoppers
nutrient density of food is something that’s been a new interest of mind
selecting things to grow that have a higher nutrient density type things. I’m excited about trying some of those things and seeing how they do on our farm.
I guess I don’t know much about that. Certain lettuces have a higher density? So what other things??
some are pretty easy
purple carrots tend to have higher nutrient density.
I just saw some in the store that didn’t look so good, but Megan Cain who was just on my show grew some purple carrots that looked amazing.
things that are unusually color
We have some for the kids at school. Those little grape tomatoes?
Say like iceberg vs romaine lettuce, there’s basically nothing in it but water.
within certain other types of crops there’s quite a bit of variety.
in terms of what your getting out of it
larger the produce the less nutrient dense it is because you’re mostly getting water.
not getting as much
small onions have more nutrients
varieties that are not necessarily known as huge giant producing crops tend to be more nutrient rich. It gets me to thinking back at the organic side
what we put in the ground
nutrients have to come from some where
natural fertilizers that are gonna have more nutrients in them then what you are gonna get from a conventional place
tend to be higher in nutrient density when it’s grown organically, especially if there’s livestock integrated so then you have much more nutrients in the soil for us to take up that we eventually are going to eat.
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.
peas, because of the heat, try to seed those a little bit early, seeded those a little bit late
We don’t have luck with things like kale, broccoli, cabbage. We grow them for ourselves, but we don’t grow them for others because we have too many pests
try this year, I bought some insect netting
gonna place that over them
struggled for us
things that I really
We’re gonna try to grow more broccoli too. I’m gonna try to grow kale this year, which I have never grown. I think I already have my seeds.
Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.
4 Summer squash
when you grow just a couple of plants they do great
the typical home garden has a giant sprawling zucchini plant
you go from a backyard to growing
growing rows of zucchini, our yields weren’t all that great the first year for sure
most part they are pretty full proof, definitely fool proof for a home garden, whether it’s
pattypans, we didn’t do the first year, when were new novice growers
might have benefited from our knowledge of farming. They’ve done exceptionally well and very low maintenance and last a long time.
From my experience, they just store better, last longer in the fridge, they have a little bit thicker skin, a little bit denser then zucchini!
Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate
kale, cabbage, broccoli, those guys just seem to be pest magnets. I mean we’re surrounded by pasture here so IDK where the bugs come from but they find it.
warm season stuff
if your doing sweet peppers, eggplant can be tough, tomatoes can be tough some years they need shelter before you get a hard frost some have to have
more effort put into them
pest prone for your area
ways to mitigate that
For us I don’t have time to sit and pick the bugs off the cabbages
things that you can spray that are organic, but just that’s not something I’m interested in doing.
We’ve had a tough time with cabbages, the last two years, we’ve gotten some good heads, I’m the same way, I don’t like those pesticides either…
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
That’s tough one, I kind of enjoy each aspect in a different way. We farm basically 3 seasons. So we’re kind of doing a little bit of field prep three times a year, so I don’t feel like I get too overwhelmed, we’re staggering it in stages. So there isn’t anything I can think of that I really dislike. Most of the time I’m ok with weeding, especially with seedlings
more of a frustration , we have some pretty invasive grasses here.
we don’t do a lot
not afraid of having a few weeds
doing a good job of field prep
watchful eye out for some of those grasses that creep in and take over
In general I’m
I like that answer,
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
That’s tough. First off, just delivering, sometimes. There’s a lot of satisfaction that the healthy food that we produce is going out there in the neighborhood and community. Part of that is the satisfaction of the culmination of taking it from seed to final product and delivering it and seeing it go out is satisfactory.
Definitely eating the produce, I like to cook a lot, so that would be high on the list.
So Harvest … Delivery … and Eating it!
I think part of it, our first year was such a struggle, didn’t have a lot to deliver. When all that you are delivering is a pound of spinach, it feels kind of pathetic
fair quantity of goods.
Andrew you are gonna be one of the most inspiring people that have been on the show, people are gonna think I can do this! It’s been tough but I can do it too!
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
I think the best advice is a couple of things. One every year is always a little different, you can always predict what’s gonna happen, you have to be flexible, and accepting what happens in nature. You can’t fight it, especially in the beginning there are gonna be years where some things grow well and when others are gonna be terrible
just getting over that hump of starting to grow a product for market
there’s never gonna be one year where everything works out great
your working with nature. You can’t control it to that degree where all 10-20 products
knowing in the beginning, that you’re gonna have a lot of struggles, and every year you’re gonna have some struggle.
you’ll get more flexible
keep at the idea you want to work with nature and not work against nature, so you want to steer that environment, by using cover crops
reduce that risk for you and reduce your stress level and utlimately reduce the amount of work you’re gonna do.
Is there a favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be?
I think, my a favorite tool is probably a hori hori, it’s a Japanese sort of spade. It’s really durable. I lost the first one I had, we found it 6 months later had been
really simple, not a very expensive tool, very common in Japanese gardening.
can use it for seeding, harvest
Do you have any tips for eating or harvesting vegetables or fruit on time?
Yeah, you got to be pretty versatile with your recipes. We don’t really, I like to someday, but it really just comes down to time. WE have a lots of hobbies and things besides gardening. We do a little bit of drying, most of the time we’ll just do freezing,
simple for things without having to blanch
don’t have a whole lot of food waste, surprisingly. I think for us we’re able to give a lot away. We have enough avenues
a number of crops storage crops that do well in Montana, winter squash, onions, garlic and things like that which are very easy to store.
part of it for us, we do a decent job, we could do better, but we try to eat more in season and adjust as we go, no means anywhere where we should be, but we make an effort of eating in season and enjoying it but believe me we get really tired of squash by the end of September, we’re happy to not to eat squash for a few months.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
This last summer, I really enjoyed something new for me, was to make spaghetti out of zucchini! Using a juilienner, making it into a pasta dish
noodles, out of the zucchini, juilienner, buy a devise that will make it into noodle shapes
cook with a little
a good way to utilize all that zucchini we have been having
Also I always like to do roasted vegetables, just throw them in with some olive oil and roast it for a long time, and then use them for
really versatile was
I just have to ask, when you say you’re making a pasta dish out of the zucchini, are you making noodles out of the zucchini or are you just making a sauce.
I’m making noodles out of the zucchini you can even buy a tool to make them but
And a julliener is just kind of granting it? Or like turning it into strips?
Yes turing it into strips.
A favorite internet resource?
sustainable agriculture non-profit, they’re nationwide but they just happen to be out of Butte, based out of Butte Montana. They’re website has a huge number of guides, downloadable pdfs. A lot of it organic, but a lot based on sustainability.
Another great resource that they have is they have an ask a farmer line? 1-800-346-9140. You can actually call in and ask your questions to their experts
great easy resource to get questions answered
e-organic is pretty good. Puts on a lot of webinars
ask an expert questions
ask just about anything you can imagine
Can you send a picture? We had a prune, no a plum tree, a plum tree! That one year was so full of blooms and then all of a sudden we woke up one morning and they were all dead and shriveled.
the other resource would be good for that
would be your local extension agent
send a sample in the lab in Bozeman
You could try asking but it could be just as easy as talking to your local MSU extension agent.
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?
I really like it, it can be frustrating, it can have great articles that I can really delve into and other times it seems like it’s basically a farm tour that doesn’t tell me too much
Elliot Coleman’s books have them on the shelf
environmental ethic, and crop rotation, and explains things in a simple manner, so that would be my pick!
I just got a bunch of his books this winter, have definitiely learned a lot.
If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?
I get surprised sometimes when I work with producers but make sure that you have a market before you grow it!!
I get surprised when growers just assume that it will sell and don’t know the market place
don’t know that it’s flooded
market is not set up
kind of knowing with business planning
is there a market for what you want to grow or find out what is missing in the market that you can grow.
farmer’s market, assuming you’re not in Missoula where there’s 50 other growers growing tomatoes you’ll probably have some sales. But if you’re trying to looking into restaurants or private institutions, it’s best to make some phone calls and ask
what do you need? or what is something that would be great for you to have in a reliable in a decent amount?
IDK, before I had the podcast I would have thought that way.
I wouldn’t put all of my cookies in one basket, I would want to talk to enough people and then if I heard the same thing
this person says their gonna buy a 1000 lbs at the end of the year, I’d want to make sure I had a backup plan, and make sure there’s a few people, or if we want to expand, make sure there’s growth in that marketplace. Because you never know and people they change their mind
having a few people
see a trend
find on line
talking to other growers
opportunity for growth
I hear that too, that probably in certain markets there’s opportunities for asparagus.
Also what yo’ve said, I’ve always thought that growing for the schools what I should do is find out who makes those buying decisions. Find out who buys them when do they buy them how many pounds do they need? would they buy them and then the big question is where do you store them all?
If there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I think really, is, I’m not gonna put a name out or organization. I think understanding the need for growing our food in a more sustainable ecological fashion. The only name that we can have some insurance that is being grown that way is organic.
grown more sustainable, ethically, humanely. We need to continue that and we need to continue to educate ourselves and how these systems work and growing.
Not only good for the environment and makes us feel nice and warm and fuzzy, but it is also feeding our health. What we see in diseases
feeling food on a regular basis, comes back to what we’re eating.
What and how its being grown effects us all whether we like it or not
understanding how we grow our food and what choices we make. I think that’s gonna be a key ingredient
is having adequate food and nutrition and land to grow it
better farming practices we’re able to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that it all ties back together, which leads to our own health …
ecology something more people will be interested in and advocates for and demand that things are done in a more sustainable fashion.
Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I think you really only know what you’re putting in your body if you get out there and grow it yourself. So if you grow that carrot yourself. You how you got the product and how it was grown
global food conglomerate
I think that goes along with what you said at the beginning about helping people by growing yourself.
How do we connect with you?
You can reach me through the NRCS andrew.maluchelli@USDA.gov
I’m based out of the Ronan Field office, you could surely call there, I’ve helped people basically all over Montana. I’ve visited farms all over Montana, especially with organic agriculture and with vegetable production which is sort of my speciality now!
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