Year in Review: SIFT Farm 2017

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

SIFT farm tour with Urkranian environmental protection delegates.
SIFT farm tour with Urkranian environmental
protection delegates. Photo: NCAT
Head Start students releasing ladybugs
Head Start students releasing ladybugs
grown in SIFT greenhouse. Photo: NCAT

The SIFT demonstration farm had an exceptional year in regards to education and outreach efforts. We held five workshops on various sustainable farming topics throughout the season, including composting, strawberry production, cover crops, diversity, and variety taste trials. We also led many tours of the farm to various groups, including: representatives of the Helena Community Gardens; Ukrainian environmental protection delegates; Prince Siboniso Zulu and his colleagues from Nongoma, South Africa; and participants of the annual Alternative Energy Resources Organization Expo. (See a video of the AERO Expo’s SIFT farm tour here.)

We had a strong educational component for the younger crowd, as well. We partnered with the YMCA’s summer program to utilize the children’s plot throughout the summer, giving them hands on experience growing food from start to finish. We also taught children at the Butte Conservation District Outdoor Classroom explaining the mechanics of water infiltration into soil. One highlight was bringing kids from the Head Start program to release lady bugs after they had raised them and watched them grow through their life cycle. These workshops, tours, and demonstrations have helped those in our community and far beyond understand sustainable methods for managing our resources.

SIFT farm water usage
SIFT farm water usage. Graph: NCAT

Production on the farm this year was restrained by high heat and drought, though succession planning allowed us to have a wide variety of produce supplied through the year. The season began later than usual due to a late hard frost June 12, which managed to affect some of our plant starts and damaged blossoms on the strawberries. Once the ground warmed up, things began to pick up but within two weeks the temperatures exceeded the comfort zone for cool crops meant for early spring. Bolting affected some radishes, Asian greens, and arugula. One specific variety of radish, Nero Tondo, did very well and had an exceptional wasabi-like flavor that impressed customers that were prepared for the spicy kick. The peas were scorched by the heat, but this was likely to do with compacted soil in a new area and the inability for the roots to grow down. The heat lasted all summer long with no relief, resulting in dense wildfire smoke being trapped in the valley. This distorted the light spectrum with a red-orange haze that likely influenced the plants in some way. In the middle of September, just as the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant began fruiting heavily, we shifted back into the typical Montana weather cycle that brought snow and freezing temperatures. The season-extension tools protected the plants throughout the first few cold blasts, but inevitably our beans and squash, which were covered in a hoop house, had frozen. Last year, in comparison, we were able to grow into early November due to a warm fall.

We also did a good job minimizing unnecessary costs in 2017. Our main costs were associated with utilities. Our electricity usage has increased slightly, but it is still a minimal cost compared to our water bill. By increasing the efficiency of our irrigation system, we were able to decrease our water usage as compared to the previous year. This was quite an achievement considering we had an increased cover crop area to water and hot, dry weather all summer. There also were increased costs due to purchasing perennial fruit plants. Though the initial cost of the plants was relatively high, there are minimal long-term costs.

2017 market sales
2017 sales by market. Graph: NCAT
2017 plant sale
2017 plant sale. Photo: NCAT

Our annual plant sale earned just under $700, a good start to the year’s revenue stream. Next year we hope to reach $1,000. Prices will be adjusted to better reflect the costs of soil, seed, and pots. The majority of 2017 revenue came from both the farm stand and the market at Headframe Spirits. The Headframe market started out particularly slow but built steam throughout the year. The farm stand was relatively steady throughout the year but dropped off in September. The balance of the two markets allowed us to have minimal unsold produce. Partnering with a caterer and selling crop shares allowed us to distribute excess produce. All in all, we pushed the boundaries of our sales and production and have made plans to expand production and continue to search for more potential markets.

Posted on: March 5th, 2018