Pulling Up Beets: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from "Flowers & Thorns," Chapter One of Pulling Up Beets: Local Food in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I wrote the essays as part of my graduate work at the University of Utah. With farmers' markets up and running this year, I've return to the material with renewed excitement about the opportunities local food offers for personal and planetary health. Pulling Up Beets is now an ebook and available to purchase here.

I drove north in an old Subaru packed full with all my possessions. A snaking, two-lane highway cut through the marshes, alpine forest, and sloping scree fields of the Gallatin Canyon. I emerged from the canyon and continued alongside the gold and green foothills of the Madison Range. Nearing Bozeman, the Bridger Range, still crowned with snow, grew taller.

Of all the mountains ranges I have lived beneath and explored, the Bridgers retain the true north of my heart’s geography. Now, I was moving towards them; I was moving home. I thought of all the physical activities I have enjoyed in those mountains, from skiing down trails in winter as a toddler, to running up them in summer as a college student. 

Middle Cottonwood Canyon in the Bridgers

Middle Cottonwood Canyon in the Bridgers

The valley and mountains spread out before me as I drove into the town of Bozeman are part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The GYE is the world’s largest intact and contiguous temperate ecosystem. Almost all of the organisms living here prior to European colonialism still inhabit the region, although in different numbers. The flora and fauna of the GYE—including humans—specifically adapted to the ecosystem’s unique topography formed by a tumultuous and extreme geologic history. 

Some 60 million years ago, molten rock began to thrust the Gallatin Valley’s flat land upward, gradually forming some of the mountain ranges encompassing Bozeman. Before the sub-terrestrial push, the valley spread out below a shallow inland sea; one can find fossil imprints of crustaceans 100 million years old in Bridger Canyon.

The inland sea. The molten rock and sea plain collision. Centuries of glaciers ebbing from the mountains into the valley and retreating back into them. Volcanic explosions in Yellowstone. All of these geological events coalesced here and in so doing created some of the most fecund farming soil in the state. In addition, the mountain ranges hold snow nearly year round, and throughout the growing season water flows down from the peaks into the valley, providing a steady flow for irrigation.

Snow atop the Bridgers Montana agriculture

The GYE’s geologic history now allows for both agricultural and recreational vitality in the larger ecosystem. In my childhood, I knew the Gallatin Valley and its mountain ranges mostly for the fun, not the food. I grew up on the south side of the valley, along the foothills of the Gallatin Range. My early years were spent making labyrinths out of granite rocks and chasing mule deer in the backyard with a cap gun.

The neighborhood’s lawns collided with the forest in a fit of Kentucky bluegrass and lodgepole pine. Snowmelt from the Hyalite Peaks flowed a field away from our backyard, and the same waters filled our pint jars and bathtubs. In this way I drank of the landscape. My dad stocked the crockpot and freezer with moose, deer, and elk meat from the region, and the occasional garlic clove and herb from my mom’s garden found their way into our meals, too. In this way I ate of the landscape. 

Yet by and large we ate as most Americans eat: a little bit of home grown and regional fare, while the bulk of our fridge, freezer, and cupboards held boxes and bags of food harvested and processed in all corners of the world. My parents opted for expedience at the end of a full workday, sport practices and clubs, and other life demands. Sound familiar? In America’s busy culture, time to grow and harvest our own food simply does not exist in the majority of homes. 

It was not until moving back here as an adult that I came to eat and drink deeply from my homeland as part of the nation wide local food movement. For most Americans in my generation, and even my parents’ generation, remembering a time when “local” wasn’t a food movement at all—it just was—is all but impossible. 

Many Native tribes “ate local” in the Gallatin Valley for centuries, hunting and gathering wild edibles abundant in the spring, summer, and fall. The Crow, Salish, Nez Perce, Kootenai, Shoshone, Bannock, Lemhi, Pen Oreille, and Assiniboine tribes are among the groups of Indians that frequented the valley. No tribes are known to have lived here year round, and for good reason. Winter storms impelled food to migrate or buried it altogether, and the humans practiced seasonal foraging with wisdom cured over centuries. 

The Sheep Eaters—Shoshones adapted to high elevation living—are one of the earliest tribes known to exploit the GYE. Primarily they hunted sheep in the high mountains with artisan bows made of elk, buffalo, and sheep horns. The Shoshone called the region To yabe-shockup, Numic for “mountainous county.” Tribes to visit later had different names for the valley: the Crow called it “the valley of the flowers,” while the Blackfeet described it as “the place of the thorns.” 

Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805 and named one of the three rivers merging here after the United States Secretary of Treasury from 1801 to 1813, Albert Gallatin. The valley and a major canyon were subsequently named in his honor. In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty promised the Blackfeet possession of their place of the thorns. Major Isaac Ingalls Stevens, governor of Washington Territory from 1853 to 1863, created a new treaty in 1855 and forced it upon the Blackfeet, declaring the Gallatin Valley as “open territory.”

Gallatin Valley as seen from Blackmore Peak in Hyalite; Bridger Range is far off in the distance. 

Gallatin Valley as seen from Blackmore Peak in Hyalite; Bridger Range is far off in the distance. 

Feeding mushrooming mining establishments in the Gallatin Valley spurred farming development here. Yet at first the pioneers’ attempts to grow food like their ancestors in Europe and the eastern states proved fatal, or harrowing at best. One speculator who had once wrote home esteeming the valley’s mild climate recorded in his diary: “I have abandoned the idea of making a permanent home…The season must necessarily be so short that it will be uncertain whether farming can possibly be made profitable at any price for produce, but we have gone so far, we must try it one season.”  Many ended up leaving the area in the late 19th century after the goldmines closed in Alder Gulch. 

For those who stayed, the key to survival during the long, hard winters was learning how to make the most of a short growing season. Resourceful settlers adapted to mountainous living by hunting game and birds, as well as harvesting wild Rocky Mountain flora like serviceberries. For example, one of the Gallatin Canyon’s first settlers, Bert Michener, carried watercress with him and would plant it alongside streams; watercress grows year round, and homesteaders picked it for salads. 

Morel mushrooms are also a beloved wild edible in Montana. 

Morel mushrooms are also a beloved wild edible in Montana. 

Despite the addition of vital hunted and gathered wild foods, the majority of homesteader pantries contained cultivated food: fresh and preserved garden produce, dairy, eggs, and domesticated animal meat. Dry farming techniques in the valley’s north and irrigation ditches in the south made grain cultivation viable, and prompted the establishment of several grain elevators and flourmills. When mining slowed in the region, these flourmills continued to bring in workers and their families and the valley’s population maintained growth.

Especially in the years during and after World War II, technological improvements in irrigating and tilling, alongside national trends of mechanization and concentration, made wheat and beef the leading agricultural commodities. Short-season varieties of wheat proved to be the most economically reliable crop for commodity farmers, while an abundance of wild grasses on open ranges permitted a booming livestock industry. Small, diverse farming productions continued to become obsolete into the 1980s. Today, agriculture persists as Montana’s main industry, although the people living in the state now collectively eat less than five percent of Montana-grown products. Mainly these regional food items are from the cattle and wheat industries, but even the state’s agricultural linchpins struggle to compete with national wheat milling and beef processing giants like Cargill. 

From the valley of the flowers to the “Garden of Montana,” the Gallatin Valley provided human subsistence for centuries. It was only within the last 50 years that food from afar became the norm. Where once an abundance of wild edibles grew and roamed, small farms were established. Where once small, diverse farms punctuated the landscape, large fields of wheat and cattle ranges now prevail, although the borders of an expanding city continue to marginalize even commodity crop and meat operations. In the last twenty years, the Gallatin Valley lost nearly a quarter of its farmland to city development and subdivisions; the rapid demise of agricultural land here prompted the American Farmland Trust to identify Bozeman’s hinterlands as some of the most endangered farmland in the country. 

Can I see the valley today without the gold and green fields surrounding the city? Can I see the valley without the town of Bozeman? Can I look out from a mountain and envision a time before farming and ranching: when hiking was to hunt and snow propelled humans away from these rugged peaks, not to them? Can I see without foreseeing, or remembering? 

I’ve tried. I’ve tried by imagining the stories my only living grandparent tells me, my father’s mother. She says my great, great grandparents crossed the sea from Norway, traversed a vast, foreign land and took root in northeastern Montana. They worked as wheat farmers flung out in a windswept corner of a New World. 

The Blackfeet, Crow and Assiniboine peoples before them didn’t build a house or fence in cattle and pigs on this sliver of the western high plains. They shadowed the bison. My great grandparents showed up around the same time the last of the wild bison were slaughtered. They lived a simple life: canning a garden to last the winter, killing deer or cows to put meat on the children’s bones. My grandma grew up on the family farm. She tells me she liked to ride her pony when she wasn’t weeding the garden, gathering eggs, or in school. 

Despite the short temporal distance between my grandmother’s childhood and my own, I cannot remember how living “off the land” feels; I cannot actually see myself existing on a homestead. But I continue to try and imagine: the ancestors I envision struggled to survive in blizzard and drought. They struggled to send their offspring to school so they could shrug off the overalls and slip into white collared shirts. My grandma did make it to college, and never lived on a farm again.  

Moving back home to experience farming seems to go against my family heritage of moving “up” and away from the long, hard hours of working with earth to survive. And how tempting for me to romanticize the past: whether it is digging up tubers in the valley of flowers, or digging up weeds on my great grandmother’s homestead. In actuality, living solely off the land required more sweat and stress than I have yet or likely will ever experience in my life. 

Our garden was physically hard to start, but is now a less demanding and largely recreational pursuit. 

Our garden was physically hard to start, but is now a less demanding and largely recreational pursuit. 

Once the temptation to romanticize the past subsides, I see clearly the comfort and convenience of the conventional food system. I also see clearly the value in my ancestors deliberate movement away from the farm. From the little experience I’ve had farming prior to moving back to Bozeman, I learned the work hurts the back and pays little.

Anti-local food advocates, such as In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet author Pierre Desrochers, often ask: “If things were so great when food was produced locally, why did people bother developing a globalized food chain in the first place?” To go back in time, rejecting modernity and reversing all the progress made in the last century, seems ignorant, extreme, if not entirely dangerous.

At times I wonder myself if the local food movement is in actuality all these things. Some social scientists identify the movement as not a movement at all, but rather a set of practices in reactionary opposition to neoliberal globalization and the modern projection of the nation-state. In other words, localizing food is a rejection of the consequences, both good and bad, of a globalized economy and international policies and practices.   

For now, the question remains: is localizing food truly a feasible and desirable solution to both personal and planetary maladies? Or is it paranoia expressed by privileged people romanticizing some ideal past when food was “pure” and humans were “intimately connected” within their communities and ecosystems?

From growing up enmeshed in the global food system, I assumed an apple was an apple; I did not care where it was from, or how it ended up in my fruit bowl. I also cannot deny the lure of a ripe orange’s citrus explosion, and bananas have been a diet staple my whole life. Come winter, I doubt I would be satisfied with potatoes, beef, squash, and onions for every dinner. I assume those food items would be my sole options in the snowy season, though admittedly I do not even know what a winter seasonal diet would really look like here. I know I could always preserve the summer and fall harvests, but do I have the vigor of a homesteader woman to process “hundreds of quarts of food” every growing season? I honestly laugh at that possibility. 

 “Coming Home to Eat”, as food ethnologist Gary Nabhan called his own endeavor to eat primarily local, may prove even more challenging and complicated than I first imagined. In the same ways I am compelled to romanticize the past, I like to fantasize a utopia where everyone eats local to the benefit of humans and ecosystems. The utopia we dream, though, is seldom the reality we live. 

To assume local food is a magic bullet, or an unadulterated system, is to set myself up for disappointment. I remain enmeshed in the global, not just in what I eat, but also in how I think and act. Regardless, I moved back to the Gallatin Valley, my home, with hopes to better remember my roots, so I may also better understand what “local” means in actuality. 

Sweet potatoes and yams are staples in my diet. Neither can grow well in Montana. 

Sweet potatoes and yams are staples in my diet. Neither can grow well in Montana. 

Driving through Bozeman’s hinterlands, I looked upon the Bridger Range and remembered all the fun I’ve experienced in mountains. I did not look upon the valley floor and recall hours spent planning what to plant, nor harvesting, cooking and preserving the bounty—preparing for a long winter. I gazed up to the peaks from the comfort of my car, not down to where farmers worked on hands and knees, pulling up thorny weeds and planting seedlings.

The Natives living here centuries before me hiked the mountains, but in a very different way. Homesteaders surely recreated, but not in the same capacity we do today. I just think of my grandmother as a girl, and know we experienced our childhood worlds apart. I cannot honestly say I’d trade my afternoons before the television set or outside splashing in creeks for hers weeding the garden. I also cannot say whether I’d sacrifice the hours I spend today playing in the mountains in order to grow and process food.

But does localizing food require us to truly reject all of modernity, and the luxuries the globalized, industrious food system affords? As a consumer in the local food chain, to what extent do I need to eat local to have a sustainable diet? And my original questions: what is the plausibility and desirability of actualizing a local food system in the Gallatin Valley? 

All these inquiries and more were packed in the car with me when I arrived in the city of Bozeman. I unloaded the boxes of books and kitchen supplies and clothes into my new house below the Bridger Range. My stomach gurgled with hunger as I carried one load in after another, and I realized how long it had been since my last meal. One simple question to answer now: what to eat?

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