Flash in the Pan 

PEAS maker

“It must have been a tough year for peace,” said Josh Slotnick, explaining why he was chosen to receive the 2007 Jeannette Rankin Peacemaker Award.

It was, in fact, a tough year for peace, but that doesn’t make Slotnick any less worthy. He’s a founding member of Garden City Harvest and director of The Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society Farm—otherwise known as the PEAS Farm—as well as a professor in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program. His receipt of this year’s award, which recognizes an “enduring commitment to…nonviolence, social justice and environmental sustainability,” is more than an acknowledgment of a great man and his work. It’s also a nod to the programs he’s started and the importance of environmentally and socially conscious agriculture in a functional society. So it’s interesting, considering this recent honor and all the import it conveys, that Slotnick is sweating to save the farm from being sold out from under him. It’s a situation that has the Peacemaker stressed, filled with an anxiety that might lead lesser men to unpeaceful words.

For everything the PEAS Farm provides—it serves as an outdoor classroom to more than 1,000 school children and a therapeutic community for at-risk youth, provides fresh vegetables for about 80 households who participate in the Community Supported Agriculture program and donates more than 20,000 pounds of food for the Missoula Food Bank—its future is in jeopardy. Last month Slotnick asked Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), which owns the land and leases it free of charge through the city, to extend Garden City Harvest’s lease through 2020 so they can invest in long-term improvements. MCPS is reluctant because the land is among the most valuable investment properties the district owns, and locking it up with a farm could be fiscally irresponsible (See “Tough road to hoe,” April 26, 2007).

Slotnick couldn’t believe it when he heard a MCPS trustee, on a recent visit to the farm, say, “there would be a public outcry if the school district doesn’t sell it.”

This leaves Slotnick wondering what kind of values are being taught in our schools.

“Don’t we teach our children that money isn’t the most important thing?,” he asks. “Here’s a textbook example. How do you measure the value of land that grows food for poor people, provides educational opportunities, wildlife habitat, and the context to turn around lives? It’s a lot harder to measure value in those vague terms than penciling it out at two houses per acre.”

The lives he’s referring to are the clients of the Youth Harvest program, in which certain at-risk youth are sent to work at the PEAS Farm.

“These are kids who have never belonged to a positive community, never felt necessary at all—all they did was get in trouble,” he says. “Participating in Youth Harvest allows them to become a load-bearing part of a positive community. It has a profound effect on them. The summer becomes a positive reference point they can use in making future choices.”

Nevertheless, Slotnick understands MCPS’ situation.

“[The school board is] concerned about locking up an asset that they might need to liquidate,” says Slotnick, “and yet they understand what the farm has become. Consequently, they’re faced with the hard task of assessing value. They’re talking about perhaps building a new administration building with the money, and they may have other needs. The board needs to keep their options open.”

So here we are, having a rational discussion about selling a piece of land that continues to change so many lives for the better. Meanwhile, Montana continues to hang on as an agricultural state—a title that’s becoming more mythical by the day thanks to sell-outs like the one in question.

“I don’t feel in any way that the school board is the enemy,” says Slotnick. “They’re forcing an issue that we need to deal with.”

And here the Peacemaker—who also has a degree in philosophy—turns philosophical. He explains what the greatest home run hitter of all time, Japan’s Sadaharu Oh, said after he broke Hank Aaron’s home run record.

“I’m not beating the pitcher,” Slotnick recalls Oh saying in response to questions about how he beat all those pitchers. “I consider the pitcher my partner in creating the home run.”

It’s something Slotnick relates to.

“I know what needs to be done, but I’m not sure how to do it,” he says. “All I know is that by forcing this issue, the school district became our partner in forcing us to create a long-term solution for this land. They’re throwing us the pitch now. It’s a fair, hard pitch. Not a bean-ball.”

And the Peacemaker hopes to hit a home run.

Josh Slotnick will receive his award Friday, May 4, at the Elk's Lodge. 7 PM. $5.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: A hot topic

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I’ve been getting manure for my garden by looking at the “give-away” section of the local classifieds. Got some great “stuff” from a horse farm near Six Mile the other week, and yesterday I came home with a nice load of sheep manure.

I gotta say, though, my sheep shit smells really strong, like ammonia cleaner. I’m not sure I want to put it on my garden.

—Sheepish about shit

A: Dear Sheepish,

Your nose does not deceive you! Sheep manure can be very rich, especially if the sheep were fed on a grain diet rather than pasture. The ammonia smell you noticed is, in fact, ammonia.

Ammonia is an important source of nitrogen, which plants require. Although the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, it’s in the form of a diatomic nitrogen molecule—which is kind of like two nitrogen atoms holding hands. The atoms are “holding hands” so tightly, in fact, that they won’t let go and “hold hands” with plants. Thus, atmospheric nitrogen is useless as a fertilizer.

Chemists have created a process by which nitrogen gas is subjected to intense heat and pressure, at a great expense of energy. The result is chemical nitrogen fertilizer whose active ingredient is ammonia—the stuff your sheep shit is full of.

In addition to providing environmentally friendly nitrogen, manure adds all kinds of organic matter—phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients—and will help build healthy soil.

But patience is required. The rule of thumb for manure is you want it to be two years old and fully composted. If you want to take a more active role in your manure’s composting schedule, you can add carbon (like straw or sawdust) and turn it and water it often. Then it will be ready to use sooner. If you use manure before it’s composted, it can be too “hot” and damage your garden. I suspect your sheep shit is hot.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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