This fall, Christian Keeve was three-quarters of the way through his one-year volunteer stint with the city of Billings Parks and Recreation Department.
A member of the Billings Metro VISTA Project, Keeve worked on the Billings Grown Gardening Initiative, which involves community gardens and other programs related to food security. At that point he was thinking about sustainability, about how to make sure the initiative he had worked on would be continued and expanded after he left.
“I wanted it to be more community-envisioned and -driven,” he said.
That thought will bear fruit this Saturday, when the Parks and Recreation Department hosts a Winter Urban Farming Forum in the Billings Community Center at 360 N. 23rd St. The free event is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m.
As part of that event, Keeve will present the results of a community assessment he conducted to gauge awareness of and the need for community gardens and similar projects, and to hear people’s ideas for other projects they would like to see.
“People aren’t generally aware of the project, which is good to know,” Keeve said, but the assessment also showed that “people overwhelmingly support food-based projects.”
For the assessment, he mailed out 600 surveys to randomly chosen people throughout the city and then posted an online survey aimed more at people who knew of the project or were active partners in it, to make sure their views were included.
The forum will feature speakers from the Montana Audubon Center, RiverStone Health, the Food and Nutrition Education Project and the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council’s Community Food Campaign. After those presentations, participants will be invited to help identify the best ways of growing more food in Billings.
A co-host for the event will be Marguerite Jodry, who recently formed Groundswell Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building community through agriculture in Billings.
Jodry worked for three years at Wholesome Foods, an organic farm in Bridger, and in her last year there she bought the farm operation from the couple whose place it was. She moved to Billings in the fall of 2015, after the couple decided to sell the farm.
Jodry said she loved raising food, but she realized there was one big problem—that she couldn’t raise organic, sustainable produce and sell it at a price that was affordable to most people in Billings. She regularly participated in RiverStone Health’s Healthy By Design farmers’ markets in South Park, but because she wanted to make her produce affordable, she ended up breaking even or taking a loss most weeks.
That’s why she started thinking of a new project, which resulted in the formation of Groundswell Inc., which she said will be a nonprofit educational farm located “as close to the South Side as possible.”
She has a financial backer who has committed $100,000 to buying land—which Groundswell would then lease—and $50,000 for startup expenses. Jodry said she needs at least three acres, and she hopes to be able to buy them in the still-rural stretches of county land between King Avenue East and State Avenue on the South Side.
“For the city of Billings to gain awareness of what’s possible, they need to see it,” she said. That’s the main reason she wants to be close to town, but also to keep transportation costs to a minimum.
She thinks a nonprofit organization like hers could grow organic food at affordable prices because it would be eligible for a wide variety of grant funding, could engage in fund-raising and would be able to use a sliding-fee schedule based on income, meaning well-off people would help subsidize produce for people with fewer resources.
The farm could also sell or donate some of its “seconds” to nonprofit agencies that help feed needy people, she said.
“There’s always seconds on a farm—the wonky-looking carrot or the bruised tomato,” she said.
She hopes to begin this summer with a small test plot, getting four or five families involved in a community-supported agriculture project, to see how the program would work and how best to scale it up at a larger farm.
Keeve and others involved in the Parks and Recreation project have been feeding people for three seasons already, starting in 2014 with the Amend Park Community Garden off South Billings Boulevard, with plans to expand to another community garden this summer in the Josephine Crossing subdivision.
At the Amend Park garden, people rent out small plots and the city provides seeds, water and tools. People can keep the food they grow, but everybody also works on a larger community plot, with food grown there going to agencies that offer free or reduced-price groceries or meals.
As the Billings Grown Gardening Initiative gets bigger, Keeve said, it would involve other projects, including “edible pocket parks” tucked into the city’s urban spaces. Jodry has a similar vision, of “farms all over our city in pockets of food insecurity.”
If and when she establishes the Groundswell farm, she said, her main goal will be to produce as much healthful, affordable food as possible. But she also wants to offer school tours, summer camps and beginning farmer education programs there.
For more information on the farming forum set for Saturday, call Keeve at 657-8308 or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.