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Replay of 119: Cross-fit Gardener of 2015 | Mandy Gerth | Lower Valley Farm – Nutrient Dense Farming | Kalispell, MT
19th November 2017 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 01:21:45

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This episode originally aired on February 29, 2016 but I am replaying it because not only is it one of my favorite episodes but Mandy talks about record keeping being so important for market farmers and since my Garden Journal and Record Keeper is now live on Amazon I thought this would be a fitting episode to play!

Lower Valley Farm

Hi listeners! I am pumped up today to introduce my guest from the Lower Valley Farm in Kalispell MT!!! When I first heard the term “Gardening Crossfit” coined by Kelly Ware in episode 28 of the Organic Gardener Podcast, I have noticed several of my guest who have completed a “gardening crossfit” challenge this year. Now I have to admit I am awarding my husband Mike with 2nd place and I will post a page of the top 10 crossfit gardening episodes on the Organic Gardener but today you are about to hear from a woman who epitomizes the essence of Gardening Crossfit the Amazing Mandy Gerth!!!

So welcome to the show today Mandy!

I first met Mandy, when I went to the Kalispell Farmer’s Market last spring hoping to meet some potential guests for my show and see what I could learn. Mandy stuck out to me right away because hanging above her head at the rear of her stand was a gorgeous oversized photograph of her children!

Nutrient Dense Cauliflower

After purchasing the most DELICIOUS nutrient dense cauliflower from her she consented to doing an interview and I later found her on Facebook where I connected with her husband Jay. I saw that they were giving a farm tour in two weeks and marked it on my calendar. But I had no idea what I was going to see that day. I learned so much about where we want to get to. All the things my husband has been talking about and dreaming about were put into action all at the Lower Valley Farm.

If there was a Vogue for gardeners Mandy would take the cover. With the hot sunshine searing down on her back she took me and about 25-30 people around her farm, teaching us about their methods enabling them to produce enough food for market. I just cant find the word to help you visualize this woman, standing there all toned and muscular maneuvering the tools showing us how to use them effectively. There was so much food. So many plants. It looked like enough work for 6 people!!!

So I’ll let Mandy tell you more about how it works. Congratulations for being the Organic Gardener Podcast’s Crossfit Gardener of the Year for 2015. I’m not sure what prize you’ll actually get, maybe I can make you a certificate but you definitely win the award!!!

Tell us a little about yourself.

Great, so my name is Mandy Gerth, my husband Jay Cummings and I farm together at the Lower Valley Farm. We’re going into our 5th year this year, we’re a diversified 70 acre family farm. So we raise nutrient dense vegetables, grass-fed Angus beef, grass fed Catodin Lamb we do all that for our community.

We also have a little gaggle of chickens, a couple of hogs, and a jersey cow we keep that good food for our own family.

Jay is from Montana and I am from Indiana. We met in Art school and moved back to the valley farming full time just a few years ago. Jay and I have 3 young children. They are 4,6, and 8 years old.. We tell people all the time we are a family farm, one of the things we try to remember always is that family comes first! A farm can completely swallow you. Our kids are our most important project here. That’s like our first priority.

Nutrient Dense Farming Lower Valley Farm Cows

They’re getting a great upbringing. Growing up in a beautiful place, not just being in Montana growing up now a farm they are very lucky! One of the other things I remember at your place that I forgot is your cows are so fun!!! and playful!

They’re really used to being around people, part of that we have separate herds. In the summer time that lives with our Cotatadin ram, at that time of year there’s also a dairy calf, and the chickens are all in a rotation together. They’re used to seeing the kids a lot.

The Angus and the rest of the flock are out in the big pasture. Which is 60 ares. Jay actually goes out there every day and moves them out of fresh grass, so they’re used to seeing him, so all the livestock around on our place are used to being around people. It’s nice for farm tours because they don’t just run away!

No they were just the most lively friendly cows I’ve ever seen!

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

Neither of my parents ever had a garden, I don’t think we even had flowers, just a yard. But I begged my dad for a garden, and he made me a 4×8 little bed. I really liked it, I don’t remember if anything grew. I just had flowers I think.

I got started with a vegetable garden in college. Everywhere I ever lived in college I always had a garden. I never thought of it as a career at all. It started getting serious after our oldest child was born, that was about 9 years ago. As our family got bigger, each summer I made our garden bigger. We were living in town at the time, every bit of yard was covered in garden. Fruits and vegetables and lots of flowers too!

Was this in Indiana?

Yes, our big family garden was in southern Indiana, which is where I’m from.

Wow! That’s a great introduction. It’s a kind of nice way to introducing gardening by starting small.

Yes, Start small…

The guy who runs my podcasting class., He talks about the baby effect. When you know you have to do it to feed your baby making those phone calls or going to market doesn’t seem as scary.


Flowers For Market

Photo by Maegan Dougherty 

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

I love this question!

There’s lots of different ways that you could answer it.

The first word that popped into my head when I read that question was


so to me, organic food, nourishing food, nutrient dense food means hope to me.

We are constantly hear in our media all these negative messages about food. Everything from

  • small farms fail
  • the percentage of farms that fail
  • farming doesn’t make any money

To on the consumer end, also a negative message

  • how impossible to feed the world with organics
  • and also how impossible the alternative is

you kind of get this sense of things are impossible. BUT what we need to know is something that we don’t see or hear in the media and that’s

“We need to know we are in an exciting time for food production!”

And all the info for a regenerative global food supply are already here! And there’s people all over the world doing something amazing! choosing as the to grow nourishing food  and build soil! 

Some as a backyard gardener and some as a career choice.

To me that’s amazing! That in spite of all this negativity, people taking it into their own hands and  growing awesome food!

So when I think of what does organic food mean, it means


You might here people say:

no food no farms or no farms no food…

but there’s no nutrient dense farms without us crazy nutrient dense farmers who are so dedicated to soil health and human health, but there also can’t be farms like ours without all of these awesome consumers who seek us out! So it’s this really beautiful partnership between committed farmers dedicated to  growing good food and committed customers who are invested in food choices.

Food choices influence your health and food choices matter.

When I think of organic food I think of the the power we have to heal with food. And that’s such a hopeful message.

Does that answer your question?

That is awesome, it kind of sums up the message I want to get our there with show. You are an amazing person is who is growing the food for people! I just talked to Andrew Malucelli from the NRCS. He’s in the Western Growers Coop.

The first time I heard of nutrient dense food when I talked to him, and maybe some guest is gonna say I talked to you about that. He was explaining to me about the difference between red leaf lettuce and green leaf lettuce. I always knew if something has more color is gonna be a little healthier. Do you want to talk more about what nutrient dense means?

Nutrient Dense Food

I think if you want to trace the term nutrient dense to it’s source you’re gonna come up with the Weston A. Price Foundation? It’s a coalition/group that supports nutrient dense farming, regenerative farming, so part of nutrient dense farming is reintroducing the micro-nutrients back into the soil. A couple of ways you can do that, there’s lots of ways of course, but:

  • Minimal tillage so you are not disturbing the top couple of inches of soil where most micro-organisms live and where they’re bringing nutrients into your soil.
  • Perennials which have deeper roots that can go down and get past that top 6 inches that’s where the nutrients have been farmed out of the soil.

William Albrecht was a soil scientist who was interested in deep nutrition including the macro-nutrients in the soil, not just npk. And his research has been very influential and it’s the research that Acres USA is continuing to research, also that the Weston A. Price Foundation (which is based off the work of  Dr. Weston A. Price) is building on. The work of both Albrecht and Price is hugely influential to lots of new generation farmers, like Jay and I, and pretty much every little farmer I know, we all want to not just be growing stuff without chemicals but growing  nutrient dense food that’s using the soil and building soil and working holistically with nature and natural systems….

How do we nourish the soil in a more holistic way? Where we’re getting all of the micro-nutrients that we possibly can into the awesome vegetables or into the pasture so that when the cows eat them and it goes with the underlying the principal that soil health is directly influencing human health!

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

When I first started vegetable gardening, I didn’t feel as much that organic wasn’t the right way it’s The only way

You know like DONT Put Poisons on your food!

I think as a beginner gardener I had the same idea that lots of consumers have, which is that organic = no chemicals. And what I have learned in the last 16 years, is that organic is so much more then that!

So its not just what we don’t do, it’s what we are doing! 

We’re doing so much that makes improve’s the soil health! 

It makes crops more drought resistant.

Basically you take care of your soil, your soil is gonna take care of you!

And that is so much of a bigger thing then not spraying chemicals!!

I think you’re gonna inspire a lot of people, maybe that think I tried to grow vegetables and maybe that’s what I’ve been missing, I just tried to grow things without chemicals. Speaking of Kelly Ware and the permaculture and you had a hugel-kulture bed at your house. That’s the first time I had ever seen one!

We have a couple, they’re just kind of experiment. Hugel is a german word that means pile, so it’s mimicking a  woodland forest ecosystem. We joke around that maybe hugelkulture is German for a “big mess!”

There’s a great book, an ok book by Mark Shepard. He talks about how to take permaculture to a farm scale, which is a great question.

I read it wanting to, some other books have been instructing on your farm, it’s really a great primer for backyard gardener on what permaculture is, but it’s really instructive with some of these ideas.

How did you learn how to garden organically?

I’m totally self-taught. IDK if I’d recommend that to other people who want to be a commercial grower, but that’s what we did. Part of that is we had 3 little kids, when we started they were really little. But moving someplace to intern, probably would have been smart.

That would be hard, how would you intern with kids?

It would be hard, it’s hard to transition… it’s hard on kids to move. So we looked at it as our first five years,

  • we’re gonna be our own interns.
  • we’re gonna stay small
  • we’re gonna try not to build up too fast
  • we’re gonna try to be gentle with ourselves
  • and we’re gonna make this work.

I’m totally self-taught and I’ve learned a lot from books .And of course from practice. What I learn a lot is from taking notes and going over my notes.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve become at really good gardener but now I’m trying to do this other learning curve which is a lot harder on how to become a really good farmer. It’s definitely a challenge but more and more up to it every year.

You’re doing an imaging job and inspiring AND Educating. Look at all those people what were there, I thought there were gonna be like 6 people there!

I know! I DID TOO! I was so surprised. There were so many people

And you did a great job I learned a ton!

Nutrient Dense Tomatoes

Tell us about something that grew well this year, those we’re some of the tallest tomatoes I’ve ever seen in my life!

Are you from Montana?

Yes, no, I’m originally a New Yorker, but I’ve been in Montana for like 25 years now.

In Indiana, the tomatoes could take over your house! But we did have a really productive year n 2015 , it warmed up unusually fast here, so all the warm season crops, did fantastic!

  • the tomatoes
  • the basil was amazing!
  • the winter squash was just great!
  • The eggplants and the peppers!
  • We actually got to harvest melons which is always exciting in Montana!

Everything that loved heat, so we had a really productive year! Great yields especially those warmer season crops they did really great!

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

This is our fourth year, there are so many changes we make each year. This year our primary focus is on efficiency. We’re attempting to keep that same level of production that we had last year. I don’t think I have said.

We did 2 acres of intensively planted vegetables.

You do?!

A Sustainable Workload

So our goal this year – this is ambitious!

Is to work 20% less hours total then we did last year with the same yields, the same sales, just less hours! 

So now we’re looking over tools and seeding and harvesting and sales and trying to make everything more efficient!

We were joking the other day, our farm, our practices are really sustainable for our land, but for 2016 is the year we want to have a sustainable workload! The year we want to be sustainable for a human!!

That’s our new thing! A sustainable workload?! We’ll see call me in July!

Yeah because now I understand so we only planted  more about an 1/8 of an acre or a 1/4 acre. Yeah, you’re like 8 times what we did! And my listeners are like, yeah Jackie we know Mike did all the work! Haha!

Each garden plot is a different section, and each one is 1/3 of an acre. We have like 6 of those.

Do you want to explain where you came up with that?

IMarketGardenerBook stole that from I’m probably gonna kill his name becasue I’m a hosier and this is a French name, but The Market Farmer Jean Martin Fortier.
The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming

I have had lots of people recommend that book. IT was a great way to say his name!

We basically used his system

  • use these 1/3 of an acre plots
  • everything is standardized row length
  • 100 foot rows

So when you’re ordering your working off 100 feet, so all of your drip irrigation is 100 feet, all of your row cover is 100 feet,  it’s really smart!

When we get our “to-scale” map out, I’m doing my planning for the year, because as soon as you pull something out, we’re  putting another succession crop in!

So, doing my planning for the year thinking of a 1/3 of acre.

1/3 of acre of lettuce I can’t water while my onions are drying out

We do a huge amount of planning beds and the succession plantings. So we never have too much of one thing.

8 interesting things to go in our CSA boxes each week.


only doing 50


part of our 2 acres is corn,...