Turkeys greet visitors to Prairie Heritage Farm. They answer in unison to a “hello” greeting or the dog’s bark, and if given the chance, they’ll make a dash through an open gate into the fenced yard only to be hustled back out by 3-year old Willa and Lydia, the faithful herd dog.
On this idyllic 30-acre-farm—a classic Montana prairie homestead—wheat, corn and other vegetable crops stretch in long rows, and hoophouses protect heat-loving produce.
It seems like a traditional operation until you dig a little deeper. Jacob and Courtney Cowgill are the new faces of farmers. They didn’t grow up with the intention to work pre-dawn to well after dark, yet that’s their chosen, and beloved, vocation.
Jacob was raised in rural Montana, but not on a farm. Experiences during graduate school studying environmental science led him to pursue his passion for farming. Courtney, who was the fourth generation in a family that had a commercial grain production operation, knew the harsh realities of agricultural life.
“I never thought I’d be a farmer in a million years,” she said, “or marry a farmer. I was set on being a journalist.” She was working for Lee Newspapers and the Associated Press, as well as co-founding The New West, an online magazine featuring topics relevant to central Montana.
Love of the area, an appreciation for Montana’s small communities and making a difference in food choices drew the couple back to the land. Now they are not only breaking the mold of a traditional farmer in the region, they are creating a new one.
Many Montana farms concentrate on one, or just a few, crops. Prairie Heritage Farm takes the approach that a diverse base provides more stability. Vegetables, heritage turkeys, “Painted Mountain” corn, milk thistle and unique grains keep their innovative operation moving forward. They are even the test site for an orchard study with Montana State University.
Montana is known for wheat. Yet the wheat at Prairie Heritage Farm isn’t the standard variety that encompasses thousands of acres within Montana’s “Golden Triangle,” renowned as one of the most productive grain-growing regions in the country. The Cowgills planted their fields with heritage grains developed over centuries or eons. These nutritional powerhouses are making a comeback in the kitchen, and more growers are stepping up to grow them.
Shortly after finishing graduate school, Jacob worked for Bob Quinn, the founder of Kamut International in Big Sandy, Montana. Quinn is renowned for his work with organic, dry land and heritage crops. He taught and inspired Jacob.
“I really loved working with the grain,” said Jacob.
During the first years on his own, Jacob trialed over 250 varieties of heritage grains. “I had to keep them all separate,” he noted. He also had to sow and harvest everything by hand.
He kept only the best 30 varieties the first year. The following year he saved eight. Now he’s growing enough of two of the original trial varieties to harvest them with machines instead of by hand. Every year he increases his seed stock until he has enough to sell.
The Cowgills also grow other varieties of heritage wheat, barley, beans and non-grain options, such as the beautiful bronze-hued amaranth, as part of their grain and legume CSA. Just like a vegetable subscription, people pay ahead and receive a set number of pounds at the end of the season.
While more and more people appreciate their local vegetables, Jacob said, “The grain CSA has been slow to take off. It’s not like an heirloom tomato, yet. It’s just not as much of a mainstay as vegetables.”
He admits that before being immersed in heritage grains he never thought where his wheat came from in his food. “Wheat was wheat to me.”
But as he, and more people, understand the qualities of the heritage grains, he sees a growing excitement and demand for these unique crops. He hopes it will become a main crop in the near future, and intends to provide seed for other growers.
Although some of his fields are large enough that he can use machines for harvesting, much of the grain is still harvested by hand, which is very labor intensive. Jacob hand cuts the heads and puts them in a sack until he’s ready to stomp it with his feet or hands to knock loose the grains.
“I clean them by hand,” he said. “It’s pleasant work.”
Herbal Healing & Turkeys
As if heritage grain were not unique enough, the Cowgills also grow milk thistle, an herb known for its medicinal qualities, for a nutraceutical company in Arizona. The nearly half-acre field of strangely beautiful thistle is hand-sown and hand-harvested. Jacob spends time every day during the late summer snipping off the ripe seed heads that he will eventually send through the combine to separate the valuable seeds from the fluff.
“Our hope is to have enough to sell (to the Arizona company) and to others,” Jacob said.
Along with the initial interest in grains, turkeys were an early part of the plan.
“I feel like having animals in a diverse operation is important,” said Jacob. But when he and Courtney went through the list of potential livestock, they realized that most everything else required a greater investment.
They settled on poultry, and after weighing the pros and cons of chickens, they decided on turkeys as a viable, niche option. No one else raises heritage, free-range turkeys in the area, and they only have to butcher once a year.
They choose Narragansett turkeys because they grow well in a free-range situation and handle the cold better than most. These lucky birds are herded into the barn during the evening to protect them from predators and released during the day to eat green grass and insects. The turkeys are pre-sold throughout the season, and customers meet the Cowgills in town a couple of days before Thanksgiving to pick up their fresh turkeys.
“Now we’re starting to think what else we can do,” Jacob said. They are considering sheep for weed management, for their manure, meat and fiber.
Vegetables are a big part of the operation, and the Cowgills supply 70 families with weekly baskets through their CSA. But growing more than kale and chard in Montana takes considerable effort. Late-season snowstorms and desiccating summer winds wreak havoc on tender crops, so the Cowgills installed several hoophouses to mitigate the challenging conditions. Even so, Jacob says the wind tore the plastic off of one house three times last summer.
Heart of the Farm
While their strength is their agricultural diversity, the true heart of the farm is their family. Raising their children, the vivacious Willa and her little brother Eli, in this setting is the main reason they returned to the land.
“So much of the house and kid care Courtney does. That’s the important part of this farm,” Jacob said. He recognizes that he is able to handle the daily tasks because of her endeavors. It’s truly a team effort.
“I loved growing up on a farm,” said Courtney. “It was a magical experience. I want our kids to know these things. I want them to know community. My goal is for them to be integrated into the family farm.”
But she’s quick to admit that the reality of farming is nothing close to the idyllic notion of a pastoral scene. “It’s total chaos. Your life is your work, and your work is your life.”
When everything needs harvesting and birds are picking apart the grain, or vegetables have to be delivered, there’s little room for anything else. Trying to squeeze family time, recreation or even sleep into the equation takes a mathematical genius.
“Finding that balance is so difficult,” said Jacob. “We struggle.”
As a result of these struggles, Jacob and Courtney are always looking ahead. They love their CSA customers but raising the vegetables is the most labor-intensive aspect of the farm. Scaling back, although not eliminating, that part is one way to shift the balance.
Jacob said, “I’d like to transition more to a vegetable seed than a fresh vegetable farm. I love seed and plant genetics.” He’s working with a co-op of Montana vegetable growers to save open-pollinated plant varieties with specific traits adapted to the region. If he can grow plants for seed, he would be harvesting at the end of each plant cycle instead of every week.
They would also like to produce more grains and pseudo-grains, which are broadleaf plants used like grains (grasses) for making flours, cereals, etc. Amaranth, quinoa and beans are good examples. It all depends on the customer demand for these crops.
Farming is never easy. And non-traditional farming in a traditional market requires an act of faith few achieve. But the Cowgills have their focus and their family. If anyone can make it work, the Cowgills can!
How To Get Your Grain On
Resurrecting these heritage grains that have almost been lost is an ongoing project for many dedicated growers. Here are a few who are leading the charge:
✺ Prairie Heritage Farm: Learn about their grain varieties, as well as find recipes.
✺ Heritage Grain Conservancy: This is an excellent resource for education, for flour, wheat berries and seeds.
✺ Bountiful Gardens: They have an intriguing variety of heritage grain and non-grain options.