Backyard gardeners and full-time farmers will be rubbing elbows at the third annual Free the Seeds! event Saturday at the Arts & Technology Building at Flathead Valley Community College.
During the event, there’s the chance to visit booths, attend workshops and browse the seed swap, while also hearing from chefs.
Local chefs will play a central role in one of the community conversations featured at this year’s Free the Seeds! Seed and Start Fair. The conversation, moderated by Brooke Bohannon of the Wicked Good Farm and Wicked Good Produce in Whitefish, will give busy chefs and farmers a chance to sit down as a group.
“The goal is to bring together chefs and farmers to discuss the current and future states of our valley’s ‘farm to chef’ connection,” Bohannon said. “There’s this whole buzz about local food, but there is a huge seasonality piece that must be understood, particularly in northwest Montana, where our season is so short.”
To Bohannon and the other organizers of the Free the Seeds! event, making this a public conversation among other topics related to food access seems ideal. Free the Seeds! is a program of Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead, a Whitefish-based nonprofit dedicated to connecting people to the sources of their food and those who produce it, and the Seed and Start Fair emphasizes real seeds, real food and real skills. So the free, public setting does more than give chefs and farmers a chance to meet; it gives people who buy produce from local farms and meals from local restaurants a chance to learn more about their local food system, Bohannon said.
“Free the Seeds! is a good fit because its overarching goal is a more resilient community through real food,” she said. “At Free the Seeds!, people get to know each other and know truly where their food is coming from. I think that having chefs connect with farmers [at the Seed and Start Fair] will strengthen our community.”
The connection between local restaurants and local farms has long seemed natural to Bohannon. When she started the Wicked Good Farm with her husband, Sean Hard, in 2012, she had been working in Flathead Valley restaurants for several years. As the Wicked Good Farm moved from north of Whitefish, to an urban backyard farm, to its current evolution as a 1-acre market garden on Conn Road, Bohannon had her eye on crops that would interest local chefs. She said she soon realized that direct farm-to-restaurant sales was an untapped market in Flathead Valley. In 2016, she launched Wicked Good Produce to facilitate sales between farmers and chefs.
Wicked Good Produce “makes it easier for farms to access restaurants and easier for restaurants to access farms,” Bohannon said. “Chefs are super excited about it, because they don’t have time to phone various farmers every week.”
Instead, Bohannon contacts local farms weekly to find out what produce will be available, creates a cohesive list and emails it to restaurants. Chefs place their orders, which Bohannon passes on to the farmers. On delivery day, she gathers the produce from the various farms and delivers it to the appropriate restaurants.
The concept has seen immediate success. In one year, Bohannon’s delivery pool jumped from 10 businesses to 30 restaurants, markets, caterers, coffee shops, bakeries and distilleries stretching from Kalispell to Eureka and supplied by nearly a dozen area farms, including Lower Valley Farm, Raven Ridge Farm, Two Bear Farm and Glacier Aquaponics. Wicked Good Produce also delivers Moss Farm apples to the Whitefish School District and, with the help of Farm Hands, to Columbia Falls students.
“What gets me excited is that it’s not just about me and my farm,” Bohannon said. “It’s the whole community. I’m the face of Wicked Good Produce, but it’s really important to me that each farm’s identity is preserved.”
Bohannon is spending this winter developing a website that makes it easier for farmers to list their harvest and chefs to place orders. She said that while some chefs are primarily putting local lettuces and tomatoes on their summer salad plates, others are using local produce more creatively, including the Simple Chef Catering in Bigfork; Three Forks Grille, North Fork Pizza and Uptown Hearth in Columbia Falls; and Buffalo Cafe, Central Ave Bakery & Deli, Fleur Bake Shop, Latitude 48 Bistro, McGarry’s Roadhouse and Last Chair Kitchen & Bar in Whitefish.
“Local produce has always been very important to us,” said Tim Good, the chef and co-owner of Last Chair and the Cuisine Machine, noting that he sources some produce weekly from Wicked Good Produce and other items directly from local farms.
“I know the people growing the food that we’re serving,” he said. “It’s better quality because it’s not traveling so far, it’s fresher, and it lasts longer.”
Good, who will be participating in the chef-and-farmer conversation at the Seed and Start Fair, emphasized that access to local produce is not just important for his businesses but for the community.
“The fact that so much produce comes from so far away, it’s important to be able to get local produce and know the farmers and know their practices,” he said.
The day’s activities will include a seed exchange, nearly two dozen educational workshops by local experts, and more than 40 booths with information and resources for accessing and growing food locally. Talks will focus on reducing food waste and protecting food sources. All workshops are OPI-accredited for K-12 teachers, and kids eight and older can attend kid-friendly activities throughout the day.
The third annual Free the Seeds! Seed and Start Fair will be held Saturday, March 3, in the Arts & Technology Building of Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell. The free event runs 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
For more information, visit freetheseedsmontana.com.