Ode to Dillon: Leah Grunzke on Self-Sufficiency, Rural Fridays, and New Beginnings

Leah Grunzke, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at UM Western in Dillon, shares blog three in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.
Dillon, oh Dillon. Home to bountiful wildlife, a lavish watershed, heart-stirring mountains and a million miles of untold backroads to explore, you’re enough to make an outdoor-lovin’ gal giddy. As a Montana FoodCorps member working to connect UM Western’s Campus Community Garden with Beaverhead county K-12 kids, I’m pleased to be serving in this community of 4,000 or so folks, nearly all of whom seem to share a relaxed, can-do attitude, a hearty work ethic and a resilient pride in their community and their land. In the few months I’ve been here, exploring the possibilities for community gardening and farm-to-school connections, I’ve run into consistently spirited enthusiasm.

How important is buying local to us? Hugely important.
Incorporate new healthy foods curriculum into my jam-packed teaching schedule? Yes ma’am.
Community garden? Of course I want to help! Where do I start?
Dillon’s an easy place to fall in love with.
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For many, it’s also a hard place to get by. Cattle and wheat production are the economic mainstays here; hard business to make a go of no matter where you’re at. In the last ten years, the percentage of Beaverhead County kids eligible for free or reduced school lunches jumped from 25 to 35%. A disturbing trend, indeed, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that hard times are often the catalyst for re-examining how we do things. Montanans are self sufficient by nature, yet we’ve somehow found ourselves exporting the vast majority of food we produce. Despite the fact that Beaverhead County is largely agricultural, 90% or more of the food that we eat comes from out of state. It’s a system that doesn’t work for producers or eaters. Fortunately, in Dillon and across Montana, there is a growing movement of people who are creating a different system—learning how to grow more food (not just commodities), buying more locally-produced food, and teaching kids the value of healthy eating. You can feel the cycle of self-sufficiency coming back around.
As a FoodCorps member, I’m plugging into this movement through UM Western’s Campus Community Garden. Thanks to dedicated professors, enthusiastic volunteers, supportive administration and a totally awesome Facilities Services staff, the garden is just two seasons old, but already a flourishing community resource with over 20 plots, two greenhouses and a composting system for the campus cafeteria waste. Thanks largely to the efforts of Energy Corps member Tom Wagenknecht, a new passive solar greenhouse, complete with solar panels and a wind turbine, will provide year-round growing space. My job is to use this garden as an outdoor classroom and demonstration site to teach students and the community about growing and eating sustainably produced food.
One of the ways we’ll do this is through a unique program called Rural Fridays. Each fall and spring, kids from one- and two-room schoolhouses throughout Beaverhead and Madison counties are bussed into UM Western every Friday for six weeks to learn social sciences, language arts, music, theater and more. Education majors design the curriculum and teach the students. The theme for this fall’s Rural Fridays program is “Sustainable Agriculture,” and the classroom is the campus garden. Through this single program we’re not only reaching kids throughout our region, but also training a new force of educators who know first-hand the benefits of incorporating school gardens into the classroom. In a separate project, Dillon Middle School students will also be starting their school year at the garden, harvesting produce for lunches at a local retirement home. UM Western Nutrition students will follow this up with classroom visits throughout the year. One of the things I love about the local food movement is the way it can bring together otherwise disparate groups of people—fifth graders and college students and senior citizens and ranchers and home gardeners and college professors—to make our big valley a bit smaller.
With the pinch of fall in the air, the energy these school projects bring to the garden is picking up (we only have a couple weeks left!!), even as the season is winding down. Last week the community came together for a garden inauguration party to celebrate the tremendous momentum that’s behind pulling the Campus Community Garden together. Blue Armstrong sang a song of dedication; Roger Dunsmore, Jenni Fallein and Missoula’s Josh Slotnik read farming poetry that made us laugh and cry. As smoke from the Saddle fire hung over the sunset, nearly 100 neighbors connected in shared gratitude for the work behind us, and anticipation of the efforts yet to come. It was a lovely night, and a great beginning.