It appears Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) will renew its PEAS Farm lease, ensuring that the much-loved 10-acre educational farm in the upper Rattlesnake Valley will keep students' hands dirty and hungry Missoulians fed for at least another five years.
At the MCPS Property Ad Hoc Committee Wednesday morning, Director of Business Services Pat McHugh said the PEAS Farm is “a piece of property that could come into play when we evaluate all of our properties in terms of how they fit within our future needs and available assets as resources our comprehensive plan. Having said that, the intent—and our plan to go in front of the board—is to renew this lease on a five-year basis. The lease terms itself still contain termination provisions, but we don’t have any plans to use the property for the district or any plans at this time to sell the property.”
MCPS' current 10-year lease with the city of Missoula, which subleases to Garden City Harvest, expires June 30, 2010.
Since 2001, Garden City Harvest and the University of Montana's Environmental Studies program have run the PEAS (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) Farm at its current location on Duncan Drive, putting to work hundreds of MCPS and UM students and growing hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables donated to the Missoula Food Bank and other non-profits.
But the land's development value—a recent appraisal estimated it at about $2.2 million—and the MCPS' budget shortfall have some in the district wondering if the land could be put to a higher and better use, say, a subdivision.
The committee began a discussion this morning about how the farm can be preserved long-term. A possible scenario is to sell the land to the city, but the details of such a transaction remain sketchy. It's unrealistic, as Bruce Bender, the city's chief administrative officer, pointed out, that Missoula's $10 million open space bond could contribute much.
Josh Slotnick, director of the PEAS Farm, says he's confident MCPS' Board of Trustees will follow the Property Ad Hoc Committee's recommendation to renew the lease. And he says the sentiments expressed this morning by the committee, and particularly by Superintendent Alex Apostle, bode well for the farm's future.
“Yesterday I was at work at the PEAS farm thinking about what I could say today," Slotnick said during the meeting, "and I looked around and saw about 40 second graders that were there touring around with their teacher. In the other corner of the field there was a pack of 7th and 8th graders at the farm doing a service project, clipping onions for the Food Bank. Behind them was my class, an environmental studies class, that was loading up pumpkins to be sent away. Then I had to quickly get to the other end of the field to meet a visiting class in resource conservation from the university. There were roughly a hundred people there all at one time. And think about the ripple effect of education. All of those people take from that experience and bring it with them wherever the next place it is that they go. And I wanted to remind you all that we’re all partners in this, and you should be congratulated…for having vision, almost 10 years ago. Literally, thousands and thousands of people have had this experience and taken it with them. And I’m excited about your attitudes toward the future, about working together, and I’m glad we have such a great partnership.”
What happens after five years, though, remains up in the air.
"It’s not about developers and farmland, it’s about dollars for education," said Larry Swanson, economist with the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "That’s going to be first and foremost, as far as I’m concerned. And so I think the school has got to watch their assets, manage their assets, and if this vision [for the school district] is going to be accomplished, some tough decisions are going to have to be made, some resources are going to have to be mobilized to make this thing go forward.”