Montana Organic Seed Growers an Outpost Amid Big Wheat

Non chemical farming challenge a struggle while working other job.

Published on: Jan 23, 2014

When Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree founded Vilicus Farms five years ago, they took the name from Latin for "steward," to focus the theme of their 1,200-acre organic farm near Havre, Mont.

In a farming region known for wheat, Vilicus Farms stands out as a unique farming enterprise. The operation grows 15 crops on a five-year rotation, yielding harvests of flax, lentils, oats, winter, red spring and durum wheats, sweet clover, vetch, peas, rye, buckwheat, safflower and sunflower to name a few.

The farm is divided into strips about a mile long and 240 feet wide, and the farmers grow one crop on each. Between the stripes are untilled sections of  grazing land that serve as buffers to catch snow for added moisture.

Anna Jones-Crabrtee, center, and Doug Crabtree discuss soil health with NRCS Soil Conservationist Amy Kaiser.
Anna Jones-Crabrtee, center, and Doug Crabtree discuss soil health with NRCS Soil Conservationist Amy Kaiser.

"I want to challenge the idea that chemical-dependent farming is conventional," says Doug. The farm is able to receive technical and financial help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service as they plotted their operation.

"NRCS was a huge help that was part of the financial startup," says Anna. By enrolling as organic producers and beginning farmers, the producers participated in the Conservation Stewardship Program and other conservation programs.

But launching an "unconventional" farming plan can be tough. However, with persistence, even while working full-time jobs four hours from Havre, the farmers decided to make it work.

"If we're starting from scratch, we're not buying herbicides and pesticides," notes Anna. "Nature tells us what to do."

But that didn't mean they could cut corners when it came to equipment. They use various methods of tillage – including a chisel plow, moldboard plow, coil pack and noble blade plow

"The thing about organic is you have to get used to weeds," says Doug. They use tillage to control invasive plants.

The farm the pair calls "a big experiment" amid the large commercial wheat farms that surround them, has been profitable, they report. Their lentil crop is sold to Timeless Seeds, which produces a gourmet line of organic lentils and specialty grains.

The producers sell  their lentils at 60-cents a pound, or $36 a bushel.

They also market many of their products to Big Sky Organic Feed, located in Fort Benton, Mont.

"We are just trying to do something better for the future," says Doug.

"We're growing food, not some commodity."