With LaLonde Ranch talks stalled, Freedom Gardens looks for a new place to put down roots 

The organizers behind Missoula nonprofit Freedom Gardens have big goals for the coming years. They hope to launch a nonprofit farm with an aquaponics system, greenhouse and educational programming for kids. But after talk of a partnership with Missoula County ended in early February, Freedom Gardens is back to basics.

"We need water and acreage," says Heath Carey, founder of Freedom Gardens.

Carey helped launch the organization in 2013 on three acres of the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Carey, who has a master's degree in soil science, says the volunteer-operated gardens achieved a lot in a few seasons: installing a 2,000-gallon gravity-fed drip irrigation system, hosting educational events and donating 800 pounds of food to the Missoula Food Bank last year. Freedom Gardens' tax filings and business plan indicate that none of its board members, including Carey, are compensated for their work. (Carey's day job is running Nourishing Cultures, his kombucha business.)

"There are a lot of local farmers around here, but we could stand to use even more farmers," Carey says. "A huge amount of food brought into Missoula is completely dependent on fossil fuels."

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In early 2016, Freedom Gardens learned it would have to relocate to make way for this year's major redesign of the fairgrounds. Carey says he thought he'd found the perfect fit in LaLonde Ranch, a seven-acre, county-owned historic property near Big Sky Brewing. Freedom Gardens tried to lease the homestead, offering to improve the structures and host community gardening programs in exchange for a reduced rate. Freedom Gardens board member Susan Estep says the county seemed amenable to the idea, and she expected to finalize the deal and start planting in April.

But at a meeting with county commissioners on Feb. 7, Freedom Gardens learned that the county won't give the go-ahead for LaLonde without first considering other options. County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier says he couldn't justify approving the Freedom Gardens deal without soliciting other organizations' ideas. He says he's first investigating whether LaLonde might be operated in partnership with the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, which is a county entity.

"I think we need to look at what's in the long-term best public interest as stewards of this site," Strohmaier says.

Estep says the last few years of dealing with the county have been enormously frustrating. She says board members are scouting for a partner who understands Freedom Gardens' mission.

"It's really just about climate change," Estep says. "If California isn't going to be able to provide the 90 percent of [Missoula's] food that they provide now 10 years from now, we better be prepared to do it ourselves."

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