Land art

Prime soil conservation finds a different kind of advocate

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Artist Claire Emery creates a circle out of local soil to raise awareness about the disappearance of vital farmland. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RIVERSONG PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Riversong Photography
  • Artist Claire Emery creates a circle out of local soil to raise awareness about the disappearance of vital farmland.

On a recent Saturday morning, Missoula artist Claire Emery stands next to a wheelbarrow of dirt in the middle of the Clark Fork Market. In front of her is a large circle made of two flat metal pieces, which mark the ground like a giant cookie cutter. She scoops soil from the wheelbarrow and shakes it through a sifter, letting it cover the pavement inside the circle. The soil has become a focus of curiosity. Some people step through it without noticing, others stroll past with a puzzled stare, giving it a wide berth.

“It’s a really interesting sociological study of how aware people are of their environment,” Emery says.

Emery’s soil project is personal and political. The artist is probably best known in the local arts community for her woodblock prints depicting butterflies and woodpeckers, barns under swirling skies and cottonwoods blowing in the wind. But she’s long had an interest in agriculture issues—she helped found the University of Montana’s Farm-to-College program in 2002, for instance—and has recently teamed up with Missoula’s Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, an organization that has been working for at least a decade on saving prime farmland in Missoula County. All summer Emery has been creating soil circles in parking lots where farmland used to be, including at Target and Wal-Mart. She didn’t ask permission, though no one hassled her, she says.

She uses soil she collected from local farmers. When people come up to ask what she’s doing, she gives them a short explanation but asks them to tell her what they think it means.

“I say that I’m using agricultural soil to make a temporary art installation on top of the cement,” she says. “And I tell them that there are so many places in the valley where cement has gone over the soil.”

CFAC’s “Save It, Don’t Pave It” campaign, which features her soil circles in its logo, has gotten the attention of county officials. Missoula County Community and Planning Services recently created a subdivision regulation draft that, for the first time, includes specific language on protecting farmland.

“We are really excited,” says Kristin King-Ries, CFAC’s land use program manager. “We are definitely happy with the changes.”

Initially, the regulation draft only included soils classified by the Department of Agriculture and state as being of prime or statewide importance. But another designation, “soils of local importance,” was left out of the draft. On Tuesday, CFAC and other farmland advocates spoke at a public hearing before the Missoula Planning Board, along with landowners and real estate planners. After three hours of testimony, the board added “soils of local importance” back into the draft.

“If you get rid of all that land it would decimate the local food system,” King-Ries says. “But the state constitution protects farmland, and that should be the same as in regulations. I feel like that’s a strong argument.”

The new framework, which will be voted on by the board in a couple of weeks, would offer owners of designated farmland four options in how they develop the land. The option favored by CFAC would see landowners creating tight housing developments but keeping the land where the prime soil is open for farming. The farmland would be preserved, most likely through an easement or trust so that it would be farmed in perpetuity. The model could include affordable housing and affordable farming for new farmers. King-Ries says keeping the most vital soil unpaved and as a working farm would add to the local food system, but it would also add value to the land and the housing development.

“People like to live near open space,” she says.

Other options allow developers to pay a fee in order to build on designated farmland. They can also put an easement on another piece of land with equal or greater soil value in exchange for building on their own prime farmland. These options provide landowners with flexibility, but King-Ries says they still result in good soil eaten up over time. 

“We have some of the best soil in the state," Emery says, "and so I’m just inviting us to consider whether it’s important to keep that land open and productive.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF RIVERSONG PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Riversong Photography
  • “We have some of the best soil in the state," Emery says, "and so I’m just inviting us to consider whether it’s important to keep that land open and productive.”

Back at the market, Emery pulls the metal borders away once she’s done pouring dirt. A few months ago, while working on her MFA in visual arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she began to experiment with soil and seeds as a medium, using them as a metaphor for growth. “Students [at Vermont College] are pushed to clarify what matters to them, what their community needs, and then to make work that changes the world—not just the wall in someone’s house,” she says.

Once her most recent soil circle is completed, one man stops to put a flower on it. Over the next 20 minutes, though, the perfect circle begins to blur and scatter as the foot traffic increases.
“People’s responses to this project vary,” Emery says. “We have some of the best soil in the state and so I’m just inviting us to consider whether it’s important to keep that land open and productive.” 

This article was updated Wed., Sept. 2, to reflect the events of Tuesday's hearing.

efredrickson@missoulanews.com

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