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Citrus in southeast Montana: Baker ranchers grow local options with greenhouse

FARM HANDS
Posted at 5:59 PM, Jan 02, 2024

BAKER — Most Montanans can't walk into their backyards and pick a lime right off of a tree, but growing these hot weather fruits might not be as impossible as it seems. One Montana ranching family is using a citrus grove, planted in Montana soil, to show the limitless possibilities of growing your own food.

From Meyer lemons to Valencia oranges, you can find fruiting citrus trees on the Barkley Ranch outside of Baker.

"The Barkley Ranch celebrated its 100-year anniversary the year that we built the greenhouse in 2021," said Todd Barkley, who owns and operates the cow/crop operation with his family.

Todd and his wife, Molly Barkley, sell beef, pork, honey, syrup and vegetables, all produced by their family, through their business Barkley's Homegrown. As dedicated practitioners of regenerative agriculture, the Barkleys see limitless possibilities of what can be grown and sold in Montana.

"We're in the farthest southeastern part of the state in a Zone 3B growing area," Todd Barkley said. "Normally it's 50 degrees outside right now and it's a hundred degrees in our greenhouse. So we're in a Zone 10. It's amazing."

The Barkleys built a geothermal greenhouse into the earth, which creates a "basement effect" that even in cold Montana winters stays warm enough to grow citrus.

“That's just something that nobody grows around here and it's kind of neat to have something different," Molly Barkley said. "It is an experiment.”

The grow room portion of the greenhouse is 82 feet long, with another 16-foot room with two water storage tanks. The entire unit 17 feet wide and 12 feet tall.

In it, you'll find hot house veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers, alongside a variety of citrus and stone fruit trees.

"We have a saying: Healthy soils build healthy plants build healthy animals that feed healthy people, and builds a healthy community—and that's what regenerative agriculture is," Todd Barkley said.

Now in their second year of citrus growth, the Barkleys have been sharing the process every step of the way to show a project like this is doable, even in a cold-weather, cow state.

“A driving force in commodity agriculture is to feed people and feed the world, it just gives you some gratification," Todd Barkley said. "The more producers we have out there knowing and feeling that, I think it's just better. Knowing where your food is grown and having your food produced in the same ground that you're walking on, that's just like the citrus, they're not native to Montana, but they're growing in native Montana soil. So we are what we eat.”