Fresh off the Farm
Arlee couple raises native wildflowers
ARLEE – When Bryce Christiaens and Rebecca Shoemaker started their farm in Arlee back in 2008; they only had two native wildflowers growing in their field. Since then that number has grown to more than 40 different drought-tolerant species of native flowers.
As their farm grew, so did the challenge of how to collect the millions of seeds produced by their plants. According to Christiaens, drought-tolerant wildflowers require little water, and this will become relevant as water becomes increasingly scarce over time.
All of the plants come from seeds collected by the couple in the wild. Included in the 40 species of wildflowers grown on their farm, are white yarrow, harebell, Rocky Mountain bee plant, hairy golden aster, and bitterroot to name a few.
Their vision is for their farm to be both economically and environmentally sustainable while maintaining agricultural character.
“We collected seeds from different populations of species to minimize impacts on plants in the wild,” Christiaens said.
Many native wildflowers take two years to establish a root system, bloom and flower. Many species have yet to produce seeds at the farm.
With Native Ideals being the only native wildflower farm in Montana, Christiaens says the market is so new, that people are still unaware they can purchase native seeds.
One doesn’t have to travel to the Arlee farm to view the vast array of native wildflowers, though, as they help supply natural restoration projects throughout the region. They also sell to local markets such as the Clark Fork River Market in Missoula each Saturday, the Good Food Store in Missoula, and the Hanging Art Gallery in Arlee.
As their crops grew, so did the requirement to figure out how to collect the millions of seeds as fast as possible, while doing it in an ecologically-friendly way.
“We soon learned how labor intensive this all was,” Christiaens said. “We are the only farm in Montana that’s growing native wildflowers, so we had to figure out our own ways of collecting the seeds.”
Some of these methods include using a vacuum to collect the tiny seeds, saving the couple countless hours in the field.
To save time, Bryce and Rebecca also recently purchased a large harvesting machine that can cut the plants and also separate the seeds.
“Some plants used to take days to collect, which was just too slow,” Christiaens said. “We can now collect in a few hours what took us days and days to do in the past. We’re still learning.”
Before they started Native Ideals, Shoemaker received her degree in botany, while Christiaens worked as the Ravalli County noxious weed coordinator. Shoemaker still commutes to Missoula to work a full time job, while her husband works in contracting to help sustain their farm.
The couple has hosted multiple open houses for intrigued community members to come out to see the farm, and even possibly get their hands dirty. In June they hosted a weed-pulling party, where 35 volunteers came out, pulling all the weeds in their field in just an hour.
“It warmed my little heart,” Shoemaker said. “We do some workshops here and there to show people what we do here.”
The couple has two display wildflower landscapes; one that is completely wild, like you would see in nature, and a contained flower garden, to show how native wildflowers can make a beautiful flower garden, while requiring no watering.
With business and their crops on the rise, Christiaens says he just wants to continue farming in the Jocko Valley, regardless of how much income they bring in.
“I just want it to be a viable farm,” Christiaens said. “I have no goals of being wealthy, I just want to farm.”