letters from young farmers: Jacob Cowgill

posted August 30, 2008

I’m a beginning farmer from Montana. Currently, I’m working with the farmer Bob Quinn on his organic farm in Big Sandy. This area is known as the Golden Triangle and is mostly small-grain farming and cattle ranching. Bob’s developed a brand of wheat called Kamut (the variety is Khorasan, an ancient variety). We’re trying to figure out ways a farm family can make a living on smaller acreage and the size we’re focusing on is 320 acres. That sounds huge, but when you consider Bob’s farm is over 3,000 acres and that’s just about average for around here, 320 is quite small. So, the focus is on high-value crops like vegetables and oilseeds. This is dryland country, meaning there’s no irrigation, just rainfall. We have been experimenting with dryland vegetables for the past few years. Bob started with storage veggies like winter squash, pumpkins, and potatoes 4 or 5 years ago, and last year, when I came on, we added some fresh vegetables like summer squash and sweet corn. This year we’re growing potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, watermelon, sweet corn, summer squash, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, bush beans, and eggplant. All this on 12-14″ of rain/year. So far, since March, we’ve had 7-8″ of rain. Some may call what we’re doing plant torture, but I don’t think we give plants enough credit for their ability to survive tough conditions. We’re building plant character.

We also grow black Indian corn for a man named Dave Christensen. He’s been developing his different Indian corn varieties for the past 30 years in order to create highly nutritious maize varieties that can grow well on marginal land for underserved people around the world.

We grow safflower, camelina, and sunflower for oil to hopefully fuel and lubricate our tractors. I am also raising heritage turkeys to assess whether pasture-raised turkeys can be a viable enterprise on a small farm in central Montana.

My long-term plan is to find my own farm with my new bride closer to home (90 miles south) and make a go of it. No luck in the land search so far. Rural Montana is dying, the average farmer’s age is near 60, and we’re losing our agricultural heritage. Central Montana’s local food scene is just beginning to pick up at a turtle-pace, as is usual around here for things so progressive and sensible. I am going to help revive small farms, revitalize small Montana towns, and bring back the culture in agriculture. I just need to get my friends to do the same.