Agriculture 

The price of PEAS

Mayor John Engen and officials at Garden City Harvest say that a change in ownership will ensure the PEAS Farm's future and its place in the community. That's why both are pushing hard for the city to purchase the prime Rattlesnake property.

"We're talking about the urban ag movement, educating school kids, keeping local food available," says Engen. "It hits on a lot of cylinders."

The PEAS Farm, which stands for Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society, resides on a 13-acre parcel owned by the Missoula County Public School District and leased to the city. An audit done by the city places the land's current value at $1.3 million. Missoula Open Space Program Manager Jackie Corday says that figure doesn't reflect the value of the farm itself, but rather the potential of the land it sits on.

Details of the city's efforts to purchase the PEAS Farm are not entirely clear, in part because MCPS never listed the land for sale. But Engen says if the sides agree to a deal, the city would use some of the remaining funds set aside in a $10 million Open Space Bond approved by city and county voters in 2006. The mayor estimates that there's around $2 million remaining in the fund, but says the city would not cover the entire purchase. Garden City Harvest and private donors would make up the rest.

In a similar deal in April, the city spent $200,000 from the Open Space Bond to assist in the $440,000 purchase of the 3.25-acre River Road Neighborhood Farm and Community Garden.

Pat McHugh, MCPS executive director of business and operations, says the district doesn't currently make any money off the PEAS Farm property; the city pays about $10 a year under its current lease. While MCPS officials value the educational experiences the farm affords its students, and they like the idea of selling the property, McHugh says officials are approaching the proposal cautiously.

The farm's fate will ultimately be decided by a long-range facilities plan the district is currently creating. Due out by January 2014, the plan will examine everything from student demographics to the number of district-owned lawnmowers as it determines what's best for MCPS's future. McHugh acknowledges the benefits of the sale for all sides—greater stability for the farm, continued access for students and extra money for MCPS to pay off bonds used to remodel aging buildings—but says there's more to the equation.

"If there's a possibility that it needs to be replaced with a school, we need to consider that," he says. "We'll use the data to help make the decision."

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