On a recent blustery Friday afternoon students from Rattlesnake Elementary marched across the Mountain View Drive footbridge to a small farm along Duncan Drive where they rolled up their sleeves for Global Youth Service Day. Jason Mandala, a graduate student in the University of Montana Environment Studies Program (EVST), raised his arms, signaled to the 80 or so third-graders and announced: “Okay, some of you are going to help me make compost. So, if you don’t want to get all poopy, then you’re probably not going to want to come with me.”
When Mandala asked for volunteers about half the gaggle of giddy 8- and 9-year-olds’ hands shot up. Later, as parents and teachers supervised from a safe distance, the pint-sized helpers got dirty spreading manure with rakes and covering it with hay as a tractor made trips back and forth to the manure pile. Meanwhile, the third-graders who weren’t so excited about raking cow dung were busy weeding the roof of the root cellar on the other side of the farm.
“This is such an incredible opportunity for the kids to have this farm right here,” said Jennifer Gale, Family Resource Center coordinator for Rattlesnake Elementary. “This is a valuable community resource.”
The resource is now at the center of a discussion that could have major implications for the future of the Rattlesnake Valley.
For nearly seven years Garden City Harvest, in conjunction with EVST, has operated this 6.5-acre farm in the Upper Rattlesnake Valley under the direction of EVST professor Josh Slotnick. The Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society Farm—otherwise known as the PEAS Farm—annually produces more than 20,000 pounds of food for the Missoula Food Bank, works with more than 15 at-risk youths through the Youth Harvest Program, provides fresh veggies for about 80 households who participate in the Community Supported Agriculture program and provides educational opportunities for more than 1,000 school children, such as those from Rattlesnake Elementary. It does all of this and more on a slice of a 13-acre parcel owned by Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS).
Those are just a handful of the reasons Slotnick and other Garden City Harvest officials showed up at a MCPS Property Ad Hoc Committee meeting on April 19 to urge the panel to consider allowing the PEAS Farm to continue using the Duncan Drive property for another 13 years. Currently MCPS leases the land to the city, free of charge, which in turn leases a portion to Garden City Harvest rent-free. This spring Garden City Harvest began expanding the farm by a third, but before they make significant investments, officials for the local nonprofit requested an early extension to the lease, which is set to expire in 2010. Last month Slotnick and others urged the school district to renew the lease to 2020, giving the PEAS Farm more long-term security.
But the school district faces a dilemma: the PEAS Farm land is among the most valuable investment properties the district owns, and MCPS officials aren’t sure that locking up the land as a farm is the prudent thing to do. Currently the parcel is unzoned, but the school district has asked the city to rezone the property to allow two houses per acre (which district officials are quick to point out reflects the zoning in place at the time the property was purchased). If the zoning request is approved, the property’s value would increase substantially, making it more of an asset to MCPS should it decide to liquidate the land to raise money for other district needs. The city is in ongoing negotiations with Rattlesnake Valley developers and property owners on a pending zoning request.
“This would be one of our prime parcels,” committee member and MCPS trustee Rick Johns said at the committee meeting. “It would be in high demand.”
But the committee remained open to further discussion on the future of the parcel, and that left Garden City Harvest officials optimistic.
“It’s not a ‘You bet, you can stay there for 40 years,’ but it’s a long way from, ‘Sorry, you gotta go,’” Slotnick says, pointing out that he was especially keen on MCPS trustee James Sadler’s suggestion that there may be a way for the city and Garden City Harvest to purchase the land.
“I like that thinking,” Slotnick says. “Maybe we can all work together and come up with a way so that the land is owned by the city or Garden City Harvest and the school district can have their financial needs met and we can continue to grow food for poor people and provide education. I don’t know how to get to that point, but I like that it was even brought up.”
Mayor John Engen told the Independent he met with Slotnick and Garden City Harvest board member Aaron Brock last week.
“If there’s a way we can work with the school district to help preserve that asset I’d certainly like to explore that,” Engen said on Monday. “I don’t know where the money might come from…and I’m certainly not going to commit on behalf of the City Council, but I’d sure like to explore some alternatives and I would simply ask the school district do the same.”
Missoula City Councilwoman Heidi Kendall’s son Brody was among the Rattlesnake third-graders composting last Friday afternoon.
“Man, he loved it,” she said afterward.
Kendall says the PEAS Farm is a vital part of the Missoula community, and she too wants the farm to be a permanent fixture.
“I would like for it to stay as it is. I think my unsolicited advice to the school district would be for them to think really carefully about the politics of it,” Kendall says. “I think people would be very surprised and disappointed if [MCPS] was to sell the PEAS Farm land so it could be turned into a subdivision. I don’t think that will happen.”
Meantime, Slotnick is hopeful the conversation will continue on its currently positive and productive path.
“Anything other than ‘Sorry, you gotta leave, we gotta sell the land,’ I feel is progress,” he says.