An Organic Approach to Family Farming

It’s raining in Montana, the fields are flooded and Casey Bailey ’03 is a month late planting his crops. He doesn’t know what to expect from the weather. “Farming is uncertain, especially organic farming,” he says. “It’s experimental, unpredictable and tricky.”

Casey grew up on a conventional Montana wheat farm and has returned to the family business, something few people do. He works 1,600 organic acres alongside his father’s 3,000, which he’s slowly converting to organic crops.

“I feel the pull between two worlds: being a conventional, efficient farmer and good businessman and reversing the environmental degradation of agribusiness,” he says. “As an organic farmer, I can help solve problems I see with our food system, which relies too much on petroleum and produces food that contributes to diabetes and obesity.”

Casey majored in religious studies at Westmont to grapple with his questions about American Christianity. After graduating, he earned a second degree in jazz music at the University of Montana in Missoula while farming part time. He played trumpet, guitar and piano and learned opera pieces on the seat of a tractor. He had a wedding band and directed a church choir. For three years he worked as youth and family director at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Great Falls — and continued to farm. He started a community garden with the youth group and grew food for Meals on Wheels. Last year he set aside these pursuits, bought the farm he’d been leasing and turned to full-time farming. “I decided to funnel my religious and environmental concerns into my understanding of land and society,” he says.

“Farming is a puzzle and a challenge,” Casey says. “Things are constantly changing.” He experiments with varieties of corn and grows several cash crops: kamut, an ancient wheat, and lentils, which put nitrogen back into the soil. He rotates lentils with bronze hullless barley because it’s low on the glycaemic index and good for people with diabetes. He plants yellow sweet clover, peas and alfalfa and wants to develop a good hay market with the organic cattle industry. “The trick is to find a plant rotation that offers financial security,” he says. “It’s better to diversify your portfolio by crop than by chemical sprays.

“I’m strategic about how and why I plant,” he says. “It’s a big chess game with differing soil conditions and weed populations. I have to know every square inch of my land.” Casey prefers no-till or low-till farming, which is easier on the soil and relies on natural processes to break down the earth rather than a plow or weed killer. He diligently plants cover crops on fallow fields to protect the earth and increase its nutritional quality.

“I want to give my soil a diverse plant community to create healthier plants and people,” he says. “I believe deficiencies in the soil make food less nutritious. The prairie ecosystem once had thousands of plants, but we’ve eliminated diversity and taken nutrients from the ground. I think it’s interesting that we’re seeing more wheat allergies and celiac disease. Scientists are exploring possible links between poor soil and these conditions.”

Casey finds it exciting to study the soil, experiment with crops, observe nature and use the energy of the sun to grow food. He thinks demand for locally grown produce could create more small family farms, and he’d like to see other young people with a background in the liberal arts start farming.

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