PEAS and Goodwill

Students, professor fight to keep organic farming class alive


Though he may not admit it, Josh Slotnick is what you might call a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, spreading not only the seeds of bountiful harvests but the skills, insight and practical know-how for making them grow. Since he helped launch the University of Montana’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) three years ago, Slotnick has taught the fundamentals of small-scale sustainable agriculture to hundreds of UM students, many of whom later fanned out across the globe, starting their own organic farms, raising their own food and sharing their wealth of knowledge with others.

In the process, the four-acre PEAS farm has fed thousands of people in the Missoula Valley and beyond with organically grown produce donated to the Food Bank—more than 14,000 pounds last year alone—instilling new life in Missoula’s once-obvious moniker, “the Garden City.”

But the PEAS project, which is one of only 11 such programs nationwide, may very well have brought in its last harvest. Slotnick was notified in mid-October that PEAS was to be canceled as of Oct. 31. Concerned that his students would not only lose their money and their course credits, but would also be too late to register for new classes this semester, Slotnick was able to keep the class alive through the end of the year through UM’s Continuing Education program.

Still, the future of PEAS remains uncertain. Unlike state subsidized UM courses, Continuing Education classes must be self-supporting, meaning that unless 41 students register and pay for the one-credit ($195) indoor class, and 30 students for the two-credit ($390) hands-on internship by the Dec. 17 deadline, PEAS may be felled by the budgetary scythe.

“Missoula is fertile ground for things like [PEAS] to happen. That’s why it’s so successful here,” says Ari LeVaux, an environmental studies graduate student who is one of dozens of students working to recruit students for next semester’s class. “The economics, as usual, don’t favor an organization like this.”

PEAS was started in autumn 1996 by Slotnick and UM philosophy professor Deborah Slicer with a $100,000 grant from the USDA’s Community Food Security Act. Securing two acres of barely arable land and a barn on university-owned property at Fort Missoula, the program built a greenhouse and landed another two acres from Missoula County. Begun at a time when Montana’s low-income population was just beginning to feel the bite of welfare reform, PEAS soon teamed up with Missoula County’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to provide fresh produce and community service opportunities to low-income families.

The concept behind PEAS is as down-to-earth as the topsoil they till. Students learn both the practical, hands-on skills of small-scale organic agriculture (seeds, soil, weeds, bugs, irrigation) and the social, political, economic and cultural ramifications of our food distribution system, which is becoming increasingly centralized, corporatized and divorced from most people’s daily lives.

“We’re in a great distance from our food, both geographically and intellectually,” says Slotnick, who himself grew up in rural North Dakota and has watched as agricultural communities there dried up and blew away. “Because it’s at a great distance, lots of horrible things happen in its production and distribution, as well as heroic things. And because we don’t know about them, we can’t do anything to change the bad stuff or encourage the good stuff.”

PEAS fills not only an educational but an emotional and spiritual need for young people, explains Slotnick. For many students, the goals of modern society, which emphasize the acquisition of wealth and the consumption of goods, leave them feeling empty, yet unsure how to fill or even articulate that void.

“It’s kind of awakened me to the fact of where all these agricultural goods are coming from, what I’m putting into my body and who is producing it,” says UM student and PEAS farmer Matthew Ward. “Since I’ve taken this class, I’m die-hard into the small-scale farmer.”

When he graduates, Ward hopes to go to South America, raise his own food and teach others about small-scale sustainable agriculture.

“He is the person who changed my life,” says Ward about Slotnick.

“The stuff that PEAS has taught me is really valuable. It’s how I want to live my life,” agrees UM student Molly Brooks. “There’s not another place that I know of where you can learn that sort of thing.”

The cancellation of PEAS couldn’t be more timely. Last week, some of Slotnick’s students were in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization and its agriculture policies that have decimated family farms and undermined the ability of nations to control the safety and security of their own food supplies.

And just this week, the Montana State Advisory Council on Food and Nutrition presented its eighth annual “State of Food and Nutrition in Montana” to Gov. Marc Racicot. The report indicates that 10 percent of Montana residents are “food insecure,” or have limited access to safe, nutritious food. Noting that most Montanans are not eating the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, the report recommends “continuing outreach efforts to improve the nutritional status of lower-income residents and increase their access to food,” and “promoting the purchase and consumption of locally grown food as part of a healthy diet.” In short, the mission that PEAS has accomplished so successfully in three short years.

During what may have been Slotnick’s last class ever at UM this week, he summed up almost poetically what PEAS is all about.

“It’s the best work people can do,” he says. “Making edible beauty.”

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