Stone Soup Garden: Nurturing the crop of community
I wrote this piece as part of a storytelling initiative to highlight the work of small, sustainable farmers. The story was published in Northern Plains Resource Council's quarterly newsletter. I also took photos to be used across a variety of digital and print communications, and produced a series of three Instagram reels.
On a balmy July evening, Patrick Certain bustled around his kitchen, cooking dinner. A dozen people were about to arrive to his farm to help harvest his garlic crop, and he was preparing to feed them. Even in a tiny-home on wheels, this is a regular occurrence; when you run a small-scale, independent farm your best currency is food.
Together with his partner, Claire Overholt, Patrick co-owns and manages Stone Soup Garden in Laurel, a regenerative farm founded on the connection between healthy food and intentional community. They spend just as much time tending to their crops as they do tending to the people who support their operation. Some show their support by buying their produce, others by lending a hand on volunteer nights like this one. For Patrick, working in local agriculture gives him a sense of camaraderie. “Nothing feels better than working in community and getting to be directly connected to the people that you’re feeding,” he says.
The two primarily retail their produce at local farmers markets and through the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub. It was the Food Hub, in fact, that led Patrick to Northern Plains in 2018 when he moved to Billings and attended a Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council meeting. It happened to be the meeting where members voted to start crowdfunding for the Food Hub. “It was a really good time to end up back in Billings with what my objectives were,” says Patrick, “because it immediately plugged me into a community of people that were focused on local food.”
Not only do efforts like the Food Hub help sustain Stone Soup financially, but being connected to the Northern Plains community gives Patrick and Claire hope and encouragement. In a time when young farmers are few and far between, they take a note from longtime farmers, ranchers, and members who fought “Goliaths” of obstacles and are still around to tell the tale. Patrick and Claire’s most urgent Goliaths these days are the droughts, floods, and soil disturbances brought about by climate change. However, Claire says being part of Northern Plains means they aren’t alone. “That’s a lot of the value [for] anyone who’s finding Northern Plains,” she says. You can “face something that feels larger than you.”
The two recently hosted their first Soil Crawl at the farm and shared about their challenges as young, beginning farmers. Patrick’s farming gene “skipped a generation.” His grandfather was an innovative, regenerative farmer, utilizing award-winning soil health practices. While Patrick grew up tending to vegetables in his family garden, it wasn’t until college when he worked on an organic vegetable farm in Bridger that the seed for Stone Soup was planted. “It was such a joy to work with like-minded people on a common goal,” Patrick says. He wanted to create a space for his local community to not only be nourished by his food, but feel invested in the farm’s success through everyone’s active participation. With no land or equipment to inherit, Patrick relied on those around him to get started. Like the parable, Stone Soup “isn’t a one-person operation,” but the culmination of friends, colleagues, and mentors offering their time, knowledge, free compost, and more.
Patrick and Claire hope the Stone Soup mindset will only grow and spread across his community and Yellowstone County. “We need more farmers, we know that’s true,” says Patrick, “but we need to present a viable model for them.” He encourages anyone who wants to ensure the health of our soils and the prosperity of our communities to support their local farmer. Claire adds, “Encourage other folks that there’s a future for small-scale and thoughtfully produced food.”
With dinner now simmering on the stove, the sun starts to set over the farm. Patrick and Claire’s round of volunteers arrive in succession, each greeted with hugs, and go about their work amid rows of blooming native flowers, plump tomatoes, and greens of every hue. One volunteer sips a glass of wine in-between loading a wheelbarrow with heads of garlic. The soundtrack of the night is laughter, chatter, and the chirp of crickets. No one will go home hungry.
Standing up to corporate greed in eastern Montana
I ghost-wrote the following op-ed about an energy rate case put forth by Montana Dakota Utilities in 2023. It was published in several local Montana newspapers.
It’s becoming a tired rerun for rural folks in this state. CEOs and corporate tycoons send down a decision from on high, the consequences sweep through main street Montana like a tornado. When the dust clears, hard-working Montanans and rural business owners are left to clean up after the trail of destruction. The story is repeating itself once again in eastern Montana.
This time the CEOs work for Montana Dakota Utilities (MDU). MDU is a subsidiary utility corporation of MDU Resources based in Bismarck, ND that serves eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The company has filed for a rate increase with the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC). MDU’s proposed rate hike would cost residential electricity customers over $200 more per year. To break it down, that’s a rate increase of 19.2% for residential customers, 15.1% for small businesses, and 12.9% for large businesses.
This isn’t MDU’s first rate hike either. Some customers may recall that the corporation raised their residential rates by 15% across 2019 and 2020. You’d think that the company is barely making ends meet. While many of our country’s industries are feeling the blows of inflation, MDU is not one of them. Its parent company, MDU Resources, saw over $1 billion in profits over the last four years, with the utility alone raking in record earnings of $103.5 million in 2021. Where exactly is all of our money going?
Since we’ve seen this episode before, it’s not hard to guess. For eastern Montana, this rate increase will mean millions of dollars per year drained from our communities and funneled straight into shareholders’ pockets. And some of that money is from the very people MDU employs. With a company slogan, “In the Community to Serve” you have to ask, who exactly are they serving?
Eastern Montana simply can’t afford this rate increase. Our communities include many elderly folks with fixed incomes and low-income families. If this rate increase is approved, their energy rates will have increased by nearly 40% in four years, while their income has remained largely the same. How are they supposed to make ends meet? Even if they can cover the cost of this new increase for now, it’s impossible to sustain this expense in the long-run. And while they struggle to afford a basic necessity, an investor somewhere is sitting on a growing pile of cash.
This rate hike will also hurt our businesses. Inflation has already hit our local economy hard, increasing prices everywhere from farm supplies to meat processing to groceries. Now, local business owners will have to raise their prices again to meet MDU’s new rate demand, which means their increase is also passed onto residential consumers. It doesn’t take an economic expert to know this is bad for business. Perhaps that’s why our elected officials are taking notice and taking action.
The Miles City Council passed a unanimous resolution expressing opposition to MDU’s rate hike and Miles City Mayor John Hollowell sent a letter to the PSC noting his opposition to the increase. If MDU’s rate hike is approved, we could see multi-generational farms, ranches, and businesses that have been pillars in our communities for decades begin to struggle. Those already on the edge could simply blow away like dust in the wind. When our local economy suffers, the entire fabric of our community breaks down too.
We can stop this episode from playing out again in eastern Montana. MDU still has to get approval for this rate increase and as a monopoly corporation, it has to answer to the Public Service Commission. Join me in telling the PSC to act in our best interests, not those of MDU’s investors.