The Biden Administration recently announced that roughly $2 million in grants have been awarded to nine Montana small businesses and agricultural producers to help expand markets and create economic opportunities in rural areas.
One of those receiving the money is County Rail Farm in Huson.
“We grow organic and organically grown vegetables and flowers mainly in Montana but also a little bit into Washington and Idaho," one of County Rail Farms owners, Tracy Potter Fins, explained. "But primarily for Montana markets, we grow for wholesale and retail, so we do the Western Montana Growers Co-op and we sell through the Clark Fork Market downtown. And we saw through a wholesale flower distributor as well called Farm to Florist Montana."
"We were really excited to be awarded funding through the rural producer program grant program federally run by the USDA and we were awarded funding for our organic produce and flowers so value added meaning that it’s organic, so it has more value in the markets — and we are awarded specifically for our vegetable programs, which is all organic. So, we grow tomatoes, garlic, and arugula primarily in that program," Fins continued. "And we were awarded to expand our market into high-end wedding flowers. So wedding flowers that are organic and local, rather than shipped in."
"And the funding is for us to provide wages for employees to help with the processing of those flowers, as well as anything that we need during the season," she told MTN News. "So part of it is for like faces and materials for weddings that are more high-end, so things that could be prohibitive for us to get into — especially when there’s not a whole lot of excitement in the high-end wedding world around local flowers. And we’re trying to promote that and market local and organic flowers to the high-end wedding market."
Potter-Fins recalls the moment she found out about the funding that the farm received.
“I was ecstatic. It makes a huge difference for our farm. We are pretty small scale. Our employees behind me or two of four employees that we have throughout the season and some extra labor here and there, but we run a pretty small farm. "And that means that our margins are generally small, and this means that we really can focus our energy on that high-end market and really promote organic flowers and I also didn’t expect to be awarded funding."
While organic flowers are not very well known in Montana, Potter-Fins says that how a flower is produced and grown has a big impact later on. For example, County Rail Farms don’t use herbicides, pesticides or preservatives.
“Flowers are not very well known in the organic world. There’s not a whole lot of promotion around organic blooms, but it’s really important and we tried to really make a case for that — especially in the wedding markets where you have flowers that are on your cake or on your body or really close...to the people attending your wedding," Potter-Fins said.
"Those sorts of things make a big difference when flowers are flown and are pretty pumped full with preservatives, especially — and likely with pesticides and herbicides to keep them looking the way that they do in order for them to be good weeks later when they arrive at your wedding venue," she continued. "We use some allowed pest control materials, so for example, Neem oil is something that we use if we have big aphid pressure. But for the most part, we use a diversity of crops and diversity of plants and just sort of manual control...we go through and we squish the aphids that we see for pest control and we don’t use herbicides at all, and we don’t use any preservatives in our flowers."
Potter-Fins explained how the USDA funding will help the farm for the next three years.
“With the $250,000 over the course of the next three years...that money will go to employee wages, it’ll go to materials that we need to complete our wedding orders, and it’ll go to packing materials and other things that we need in order to process our flowers and food. So, whether that’s clamshells to sell arugula or cardboard pints to sell our cherry tomatoes, or it’s vases and zip ties and chicken wire in order to build the floral installations that we do for high-end weddings."
Although flowers were not the first crop that came to mind when starting to farm, but it soon became a growing business and industry for Potter-Fins.
“I started growing vegetables in 2011 and flowers were not at the top of my list. I was really interested in growing food and feeding people and growing organically because clearly the food that we eat makes a difference inside of our bodies and we don’t want to have chemicals or pesticides or herbicides inside our bodies," Potter FIns said.
"Flowers for us came a lot later my partner, Bethany is a floral designer and a flower grower and she got into flowers and I kind of just followed suit. It’s a really interesting and new market in Montana for high-end weddings. It’s not a new market at the farmers market,” Potter-Fins added.
Potter-Fins notes that organic weddings are starting to become a bigger industry in Montana.
“There’s a lot of growers that have been growing organically and organic flowers for a really long time. But for those high-end weddings, it is something that has been breached a little bit but doesn’t have a whole lot of publicity and we really think it’s important because of the stain of sustainability of organically grown and organic flowers in the land in our soil in our bodies and our employees bodies."
"And as I mentioned before and for those wedding events when you have flowers on cakes and flowers on boutonnieres and on hair flowers things that are touching your body that you really want to make sure are safe for consumption and for contact,” Potter-Fins continued.
The emotions that come when a bride walks down the aisle with flowers from Five Field Flowers is more special than just growing the flowers.
“It’s really thrilling to see our flowers in those wedding scapes and to hear from brides, hear from attendees of those weddings, how much those flowers meant to them. Bethany is a real incredible designer, and really good at creating an experience with the flowers so instead of just a bouquet she’ll create an entire landscape around the wedding," Potter-Fins explained.
"They are called the Meadows. So, these are terms that I learned recently — basically, bouquets on the ground that creates sort of a literal landscape that guest can walk into or giant arches, or a broken arch, which is not a full rainbow...that can mimic the landscape, as well as what the wedding party is really interested in," she continued "So, all of that is really a joy to be able to create. And honestly, I’m kind of just a spectator, my partner Bethany really does the design and is kind of the mastermind behind those things. And it’s a real honor to watch her work and to see the difference that it makes going from kind of a blank canvas to something completely unrecognizable from what it was before."
Although just in the wedding scene for a year, the feedback and positivity have been uplifting for Potter-Fins and the farm's employees.
“It’s really cool to see and we’ve had so much positive feedback from the weddings that we’ve done — people that I’ve just really appreciated the work that’s gone into it, and our employee's time and effort, and the beautiful flowers that we’ve grown as well. And ... we do bring in some flowers that we don’t grow there are things that we don’t necessarily grow ourselves that we try to buy from other local florists, other local flower growers, local farmers, and we do shipping sunflowers that we need to in order to complete orders but the big flowers are ours or local organic growers,” Potter-Fins said.
When it comes to the next three years with the funding, the hope is to expand the industry and their business.
“I’m really excited to see sort of high-end wedding market become something that’s really sustainable for us and for other growers. We want this to be not something that’s super localized just our farm, but something that other growers can piggyback on," Potter-Fins said. "We really want to see .. especially the destination weddings that come into Montana seek out local growers. Not just local florists, but the local growers — and have local florists buying more local flowers. This place, in particular, we have a two-year-old and we have our dogs and our employees. And we’re really excited to see this place flourish."
“...We're really excited to see how [the funding] allows us to create a sustainable version of what we’re doing now because we’re really new to the wedding world. 2023 was our first year doing higher-end weddings, and we’re really excited to see that become more established in our day-to-day season, and those high-end weddings," Potter-Fins said. "That we can make it more sustainable for our bodies for our employees because when you’re doing 30 smaller weddings a year, that’s three weddings a week sometimes and during the season and that’s a lot when you’re doing those higher design weddings. You’re able to really focus on those weddings and create something really special and be able to dig into those and really enjoy our time doing instead of rushing to the next thing,” Potter-Fins said.
Potter-Fins and her farm also offer a U-Pick program that they would want to expand the program for more people to enjoy the flowers that they grow.
“I’m excited to see that established in the future and excited to see where that takes us because I think it can go a lot of places, but mostly I’m excited for this farm to be just a wash and florals which I kind of already were planting tulips right now for winter program. But also in the future, we’re hoping to have more and more every year for people to come and pick their own flowers. And we offer that for weddings as well. So, a lot more of that more color, lots of families to experience agriculture here in Montana in a way that they haven’t ever before,” Potter-Fins said.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that when it comes to rural agriculture, it’s the lifeline of food for America and a strong food supply.
“President Biden — when he asked me to take on this job ... when he asked me to take this job — he indicated he had two significant goals. One was to revitalize the rural economy by building, a stronger middle class from the bottom of the middle out — the focus on small midsized farming operations. Secondly, he wanted to make sure we had a more resilient food system so key strategies to do that are investments in agriculture, as well as building and strengthening our local regional food system,” Secretary Tom Vilsack said.