The Mission Valley just might be the most easy-beautiful spot in western Montana. Roughly halfway between the population centers of Missoula and Kalispell, it’s easy to get to. And the beauty — well, it pretty much gobsmacks you every time you summit the grade between Ravalli and St. Ignatius on Highway 93.
That beauty is so easy, in fact, that most people are content to consume it from their vehicles as they traverse the corridor. After all, with the exception of the National Bison Range, the majority of Mission Valley’s obvious attractions sit alongside the highway.
Diverge from the main road, though, and things get interesting in a hurry. The beauty of the near-10,000-foot peaks remains, and the human color sprawling across the valley floor comes into focus.
“It’s a really eclectic place,” says valley resident Jesse Hadden. “There are native folks, weird new-agey hippies, Amish, German Baptists, salty-dog Big Ag folks. Everybody on my road is doing farming of some kind, and we all help each other out.”
Despite his own unmistakable weird new-agey hippie streak, Hadden, 33, possesses a measure of salt that belies his age. His face lights up when he talks about Lower Crossing Farm (LXF for short), a decidedly small-ag labor of love and personal conviction now entering its third season as a commercial entity. “The physical act of farm work is very satisfying to me,” says Hadden, the farm’s owner and butcher.
Hadden operates the 110-acre farm on the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. CSA farms rely on subscribers to accommodate their emphasis on quality over quantity, using a significant portion of subscription funds to cover operating costs during the work season. But though subscriptions contribute to one of the principal goals of the CSA model — to connect farmer and consumer on a far more personal level than a large commercial farm ever could — Hadden’s chief motivators as a CSA farmer are more philosophical than financial.
“When we think about food, it’s the foundational vector by which folks establish health and the way we interact in our environment,” Hadden says. “How we relate to our food is reflective of how we relate to our communities, our landscapes, and to capital itself.”
As a rancher, Hadden raises cows, pigs and chickens. Subscribers order partial or full shares of individual animals (or multiple animals, in the case of chickens), and in the process become owners (or co-owners) of those animals, which are birthed, reared and slaughtered at LXF. Ownership status is key, since federal regulations require animals owned by their rancher to be processed at a USDA-certified slaughterhouse. Subscriber ownership qualifies LXF for a custom exemption from that rule, and Hadden can finish and process the animals on site, which he argues results in a superior product in both ethics and taste.
“We practice field slaughter on our animals, which means they die as they lived, free-ranging and happy,” he says. “Studies show that animals that die under stressful conditions commonly associated with commercial meat production produce an inferior meat.”
Hadden learned full-cycle animal rearing five years ago as a farmhand in New York. “It was my first experience with the cycle of birth to slaughter to animal product,” he says. “I fell in love with that idea, that you could be present for every stage of the animal’s life.” After slaughter and gutting, the animals are hung in the LXF butcher shop, where they dry-age in near-freezing temperatures for one to three weeks.
Hadden’s particular brand of CSA farming is as attentive to its environment as it is to socioeconomic and ethical concerns. He is a disciple of the grazing practices championed by the Savory Institute, founded by Allan Savory, a farmer and wildlife biologist from Zimbabwe. Savory theorized that grasslands coevolved with large herds of megafauna, which would only partially graze prairie, pasture and savannah habitats before moving on. Hadden believes grasslands in the middle and western United States similarly coevolved with bison, and he tries to mimic that model with his livestock.
“A big part of my day during the season is management-intensive grazing,” he says, explaining that he moves LXF’s customers’ cows, using microplots and mobile electric fencing, from pasture to pasture every 24 hours. “The ideal is to leave no less than six inches of plant height on grazed plots, which means any given plot will recover to be grazed again in about a month. The result is soil with far better water retention and carbon sequestration capacities than overgrazed land.”
As might be expected, meat from LXF is not inexpensive compared to the cuts you can find in grocery stores. Subscribers pay $4.50 per pound hanging weight (bones and all) for beef and pork. That translates to between $6 and $8 per pound of finished product, though Hadden notes that price includes not only ground meat but also sausage and high-end steak cuts as well.
“It’s a gentrifier’s dilemma at a certain level,” Hadden acknowledges, “but I have to cater to the available market to make it work. Having a sustainable business will also allow me to expand our work helping others with incubator and community-oriented projects.”
You don’t have to be an LXF subscriber to discover the merits of its products. Hadden sells meat, eggs, pickles, fermentations and hot sauces at various farmers markets, including the Missoula Valley Winter Market held every Saturday at the Senior Citizen Center on Higgins Ave. (Meat sold at markets was slaughtered off-site at a certified slaughterhouse and processed by Hadden at LXF.)
Hadden and his partner Jaimie Stevenson also grow vegetables (mostly onions, potatoes, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and garlic) at LXF, which they sell wholesale through the Western Montana Growers Co-Op. And Stevenson owns and manages the Take It or Leave It food truck, which makes regular appearances at the Clark Fork Market and other Missoula locations during the season.
“It’s a joint project between she and I, and we feature a single entrée every night that is locally sourced from LXF and our vegetable-farmer friends,” Hadden says, noting that entrees cost $10-$12. “Our selection is entirely dictated by what we have ready or ripe on any given week.”
Hadden hopes to grow Lower Crossing Farm into an operation that affords both a decent living and, eventually, the opportunity to make its food available on a larger scale to customers on modest budgets.
For now, he and Stevenson are content to grow their farm in the same sustainable and conscientious manner they grow their livestock and vegetables, and to keep trying to make a difference in the valley they’ve come to call home.
“Everyone up here gets along really well,” Hadden says. “The Big Ag folks — I think that they think I’m crazy. But they’re all really nice.”