First there were seven, then eighteen, then thirty-six, now forty-one! Tucked away in the Rosebud school greenhouse, five tiny tomato plants have just emerged from the tray planted by the 8th graders over a week ago to join those of other classes. The Rosebud 8th graders has been getting annoyed that their plants hadn’t sprouted while the 7th graders’ were flourishing, and even I was beginning to worry about what we might have done wrong. But now almost all of the students who planted seeds have a little speck of green growing in their pot, which collectively represent Rosebud’s new school garden! October’s a strange time to be starting a garden, but I was not willing to let our ideas or enthusiasm stagnate over the long winter. Instead, students have installed heaters, fans and lights in the greenhouse so our plants will stay cozy even when it’s bitterly cold outside.
The small town of Rosebud is just west of Forsyth, where I am serving with the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension Office. Together, Rosebud and Treasure Counties encompass an enormous stretch of land and a population of nearly 9,000 people. While most of this land is agriculture, the majority of crops are commodity-scale grains, so finding enough local, fresh food to feed even this sparse population is a truly ambitious endeavor.
My service area also extends thirty miles west of Forsyth to Hysham, where finding food (local or not) is an even bigger challenge. Hysham has been without a grocery store for three years, and residents drive to Forsyth or the seventy miles to Billings for their shopping. To try and change this, a group of residents and I are exploring the idea of a cooperative grocery store, an enormous—at times overwhelming—project. Still, it may make all the difference for a town where the average age is increasing, while the population numbers are decreasing. We hope that a cooperative store which depends upon the support and labor of the community will not only provide better access to high-quality food, but also increase economic opportunities so that we can keep both dollars and residents in the area.
The biggest challenge for both of these projects is that Eastern Montana is a tough place to make a living, and for many residents, local food is not the top concern: there is barely enough time to do the shopping as it is. So while my specific FoodCorps goals are to build a school garden in Rosebud, launch a Farm to School program, and conduct hands-on nutrition education with the kids, my bigger mission in these communities is to offer the model of local food as a way not only to improve the health of individual, but also entire communities.
Proving that this is possible may be the hardest part of the process, but it is also the most rewarding. The plants for Rosebud’s school garden may be still be miniscule, but right now four trays planted by 7th-10th graders span the wall of the greenhouse that the students cleaned out earlier this fall, and soon Gardener’s Delight, Super Sweet, Italian Ice, and Little Girl Hybrid Cherry tomatoes will grace the garden, and eventually the cafeteria!
In my year here the Rosebud garden may only provide the cafeteria with a meal’s worth of vegetables, and the Hysham grocery store may take years to get off the ground. Still, in a region with approximately 2 people per square mile, I’ve already learned that every effort counts for double. The key is to start small, like Rosebud’s tomato sprouts, and with patience and cultivation, I’m confident we’ll see fruit.