The wind swept in as we opened the van door to rolling hills of Montana farm land. Round bales speckled the landscape, still fresh and intact just after summertime hay season. The sun felt amazing on our faces after so many days of sleet, snow, and snizzel. Across the ridge we could see the beautiful and appropriately named mountains that we backpacked through last week, the Big Snowies. Dusted after an early snow, they stood out in the land of sunny farms and prairie, providing water and life to this place. The valley below us had felt the weather just as much as we had. It was alive and muddy and enjoying today’s sunshine all the same. As the smell of fresh rain surrounded us, the mud clung to our Chaco’s and we walked across the road to overlook the valley where Big Springs creek flowed. Aspen trees with changing leaves shaded the grassy pastures where an eagle soared just above tree line. The sound of an old pickup brought us four very important things: Mariah O’Halloran and her three dogs! Rarely do you see so much joy as the moment when thirteen dog-deprived students encounter some loving farm pups!
Ranch land and friendly Labradors gave me a familiar sense of home. Growing up on a grass-fed cattle ranch in Oregon, I was excited to hear of how this family’s life compared to my own. Additionally, after a brief trip to the O’Halloran’s local coffee shop downtown, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was back in rural Creswell, Oregon, making coffee and organic food for an un-expecting community of farmers. Their lives seemed to parallel with my own work experience in agriculture and food service, and I was excited to hear more.
In a land full of chemical farms, the O’Hallorans are weird. Where herbicides may waft between fence lines they stop abruptly at this property line. This is a place where neighbors may look judgingly at their thistle problem, but where the wildlife find a refuge. Mariah and Brandon unapologetically follow their land ethic and they are finding success. An organic farm that grows crops and grass-fed beef for their local coffee shop is only a part of what the O’Hallorans devote themselves to as they dream bigger each year. The term self-sustaining has never meant so much; from seed to plate, providing nourishment to their family and their community–a community that, at large, rejects them. Lewistown, Montana is a place that doesn’t yet have a niche market for organic food but, as Mariah says, it “deserves one.” They are achieving farm to table on almost every front by ensuring that their products align completely with their ethics, their standards and their vision. Most of all, they are pioneering this movement in rural Montana almost single handedly.
Mariah kneeled in the soil and carefully uprooted a sprouting wheat grass seed. She burst into a smile and pointed at the little brown speck. “Isn’t it fantastic? They have all they need to grow right here!” Her love of this little dot of life radiated through the group. These people were nurturers, and they fearlessly shared their compassion for all life-forms with us. Mariah talked about weeds the same way she spoke of seeds, embracing them as a tool to keep moisture in the ground during the winter and to feed wildlife. At one point Brandon stated, “If wildlife want to make a home here then that’s amazing.” They both acknowledged the benefits to a diverse and interconnected ecosystem on the property realizing that in a lot of ways farming was about helping the natural world grow and not about total control of the system. This was a stark contrast to the gray colored “clean” and dead fields in our surroundings.
Brandon and Mariah are experimenters. They are rewriting the rules of agriculture in rural Montana and have endless ideas and creativity in the process. Even when they fail Mariah says, “knowing we are capable of creating life without the support of anyone or any chemicals, that is satisfying in itself.” More-over, the couple seem to be having fun. They were open in sharing their love for the lifestyle they have chosen and a love of working together at it.
Mariah describes organic farming as simply, “slowing down.” She argued that every aspect of our society pushes to create faster systems and eliminate all factors with the potential to slow us down. We aren’t a patient society anymore. And this is the basis of conventional agriculture; we use chemicals because we want faster growth, we want food now and we sacrifice our health and our sanity in the process. Organic farming is instead a long-term practice, and it may take a long time to achieve, perhaps generations. Patience is a virtue and clearly one that has shaped the lives of the O’Halloran family.
It soon became clear, however, that patience was not the only core value to this family. An outstanding work ethic should be duly noted. How else could it be possible to run a small business downtown, an organic farm, a grass-fed beef operation, community outreach, and raise three teenage boys (homeschooled too)! Waking up at 4:30 every morning, managing cattle, running tractors, shoveling grains and producing food for a small business all without the shortcuts of conventional agriculture; they re-define hard work. When asked how they keep up with it all, they told us the same way they win over the locals: good food and LOTS of coffee. However, they don’t sugar-coat it all. Mariah says, “In farming the hardships are huge,” and they have to realize that a large part of what they do is entirely out of their control. But all the same, Mariah argued that our society has lost a satisfaction in hard work; we no longer realize that working gives us value and make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves. As Mariah told us, “when you live your life truly and fully and in accordance with the land and yourself then you don’t need a vacation or validation.”
We arrived expecting to learn something about organic farming in Montana and left with an almost overwhelming amount of love and compassion for two inspired and inspiring people. Even more so, we left with a feeling of hope in our ability to achieve such a life. The O’Halloran’s were not only conscious of their ethics, but for them, these weren’t just theories. This family has found a way to act upon and share their values of respect and reciprocity toward the land in a community that wasn’t expecting it. Regardless, they have planted a seed and slowly but surely, in rural Montana, it is growing.