This episode was originally published on October 8, 2015.
Patti Armbrister is an educator and policy changer who looks for positive solutions to producing and eating locally grown food in our schools. She teaches agricultural education in a rural school but is making change that affects our farmers, students, and families as she connects locally grown healthy food with nutrition and education. After building a passive solar green house and root cellar in the Hinsdale Outdoor Classroom, this phenomenal speaker and farmer who is also a self-proclaimed “beef geek” shares her story of getting recognizable meat and real potatoes into the school cafeteria. Be inspired to make change in your local school district by learning about the wellness committee, food miles, and how change in our food systems starts at home.
Well, we start with now, I teach 7-12 agriculture at the Hinsdale Public Schools which is a tiny community in the Hinsdale Public Schools in a tiny community out in the middle of High-line on US 2 in Eastern Montana. That’s what I’m engaged in currently, I’ve been doing that for 8 years. When I started I decided I had to have a greenhouse, but I have been in the community since 1972 ranching and running an outfitting business, and really doing business stuff, along with raising a child, and I knew the school board would not allow a green house.
So I did a bunch of research and come up with a passive solar design from a few other states, so I decided I was just gonna design my own passive solar, so we constructed a root cellar, green house that’s off the grid. So when I took it to the school board I already secured funding through grants and I dropped the brainstorm on them and already ok’d by the groundskeeper it was gonna be alright to put the structure where we wanted. So that was actually what started my journey in agricultural education with the passive solar greenhouse.
Do you want to explain what passive solar means?
Passive solar means we’re just collecting the energy from the sun, we have no mechanical, we’re not storing, nor are wired to use energy. It’s really on the pitch of the angle and it’s location on the earth. So we’re like 2º off of due south. It’s a really steep angle on the glazing wall to collect all the winter solius that we can possibly collect.
Then that sun comes thorough that 12 foot on that glazing wall comes through there are 20 water barrels that contain water that are black, sunlight hits those barrels and heats up the barrels. The whole building has a 6 inch wall that is constructed like a house, has no air gaps. Just one window and a door. The windows for cross ventilation during summertime, but it’s all closed up during the winter. So then the energy is contained in that water.
At night when the temp drops below the temp of the barrels, that energy is radiated back into the building and keeps the building relatively warm most of the winter. So it’s off the grid, we do have a back up solar heater, all runs on passive too. And a passive solar vent that vents out when it’s too hot sort of like a chimney effect and it pulls heat out when we’re too warm. More or less on auto pilot without any expense.
I guess I got confused between the root cellar and the green house. Is it all one?
No, 2 completely different things. The root cellar was a new project we just completed last year. The Passive Solar Greenhouse was completed in 2010. If you look at the Facebook Page it’s at the center of outdoor classroom the outdoor solar greenhouse.
The root cellar is buried in the side of the hill, in the ground? And the Solar Greenhouse is an actual building above ground.
The passive solar, was built like a house, it would have been a 5-6 foot crawl space, if we’d made it into a house, but we earth and filled it back. We built a cement foundation dug deep in the ground, there was a 6-8’ wall made with a concrete form. built just like a house, foundation identical to a house. Then we put a water containing reservoir underneath the ground, it is also part of our heating, it holds energy from that water. radiates part of the winter…. part of the house.
It looks like it is all above ground, but a lot of it’s working components, are underground too.
How did you learn how to do this?
I come from a working farm where we just work with our hands, and we just do it. I was never schooled that you can’t do something. I always take the viewpoint that I’m gonna do something until it’s proven that I can’t do it. So we just do it.
So you were talking about the root cellar.
The root cellar came, everything kind of evolved after the passive solar greenhouse, we built an outdoor classroom to teach other kids how to grow food. I wasn’t in the classroom long, before I realized the kids had no idea how to grow food, in fact they didn’t know what plants were what and that potatoes grew under the ground.
Wow we’ve got to teaching kids how to grow food!
So one thing evolved from one thing to another, along the way we built a no till garden to grow mostly production food for the cafeteria, after I convinced the cooks that they could serve local food. Which started by asking them what they would like to serve, which was cherry tomatoes, because that’s the simplest given thing that you can possibly get a cook to serve, is a package of cherry tomatoes because we pick ’em, wash ’em, and deliver them, so all they do is wash them and put them in the salad bar. So that was our beginning relationship with the cooks and the outdoor classroom and actually turning it into a full blown farm to school where we whatever we grow we eat…that was a 5 year building relationship. that we’re still building on.
How we got to the root cellar, we said, “Wow now we have all this production!”
We have 3 gardens in town, including the outdoor classroom.
older people who have given up
turned it into a no-till no chemical garden
then we started having extra winter squash, potatoes, onions, and stuff we could store, so we wrote some more grants, and come up with a design, and went for it again…
completed and running like clockwork
overlooking the milk river
on the school property
right outside the education shop door
if you were driving by, you wouldn’t even know it’s there except for some pipes sticking out of the ground little tiny solar panel to run lights… we didn’t even hardwire it for electricity.
I’m from Southern Michigan. I have vivid memories of my first food experience. My family had fruit and vegetable we sold right in our own garden, our own beef animals, my whole life evolved around growing food,
all I could think about in school, spent most of my time daydreaming about what was going on on the farm.
So how did you end up on Eastern Montana? Is that a similar climate?
Michigan is zone 5-6 temperate, you can grow almost everything from peaches to blueberries, but mostly corn and soybeans today.
I remember picking sour choke cherries, and going and picking apples in the orchards, and making into apple cider
pumpkins out front and great big crates of apples, and you’d go inside and smell the cider… and the sugar donuts… we ate sugar donuts and apple cider together, it’s phenomenal… now as an adult I think “why would you mix those two?”
southern Michigan culture…
My fondest moments were of going to the Jericho Cider Mill?
My first memory is actually in the strawberry patch. My parents would grow strawberries and we would have these 3 foot by 300 foot row of strawberry plants. I remember
sitting on the hill my fingers were all pink and sticky and smelling really sweet and radiating of strawberries everywhere
unchanged by modern agriculture and they were full of juice and just phenomenal
12 of them to make a flat, actually my first job of getting paid, and I got paid 5¢ a quart to pick strawberries and did they taste
full of juice
You’d have to go to Rocky Creek Farm in Bozeman …
Laura Behenna from episode planted strawberries in her front yard in Kalispell this year!
I was going to explain how I got to Michigan to Montana
Some resulted from me being bored out of my mind in high school. I was working for a cattle sitter, who grooms cattle for county fairs, and state fairs, and show em in regional fairs
I started working for him when I was 14, and I just loved the cattle and the connection between the human and the animal and the traveling. That was my first job outside the farm. When I grad from high school, I was just gonna do that,
landed me in grass range montana
mother was adamant we went on a big field trip.
largely traveled, knew I loved Montana, when I did my internship, I only applied for the Rocky Mountain Front.
I went to the N-Bar Ranch in Grass Range, and learned how to AI cows…
What does AI Mean?
Artificially inseminating them
cowboy, cowgirl through and through… they offered me a full time, I was only 19 years old, living very rural, not the place to meet anybody else. So I decided I needed to go somewhere else.
My old boss form Michigan was in NY, went to a cattle ranch in upstate NY, and traveled all over the US and California at the time. That landed me in OK, met my ex-husband, and we moved to Montana, went out on my own.
Oh my goodness you have been everywhere! I have to tell you I have a friend who is totally into PBR – Professional Bull Riders so I know a little bit of what you are talking about or I would have no idea. So I should tell listeners the Rocky Mountain Front is
We’re about a 5 hour drive to Great Falls
That’s about 2 miles from the Browning so about 7 hours. You get off the plains and you see these giant mountains!
I think it’s the future. The plant community the biological life of the soil, the whole community of biological life, that is the future, its the future to everything in my mind.
I guess mostly I’m a mother, I have traveled a lot, and I’m more of a visionary.. and thinking out of the box.
Out of necessity and each year you learn what to do different the next year
When I was out on our ranch and raising my child and stuff. We had a big garden. One year we grew an acre of marigolds.
we were always growing our own tomatoes, and a lot of our own food and green beans, and stuff,
One year, I didn’t have time to be out doing the
I just stuck straw bales
each flake on the ground all around the tomatoes
that fall when I pulled the tomato plants, back then I pulled tomato plants, that’s what everybody had done. Today I don’t pull tomato plants an they had like 6 foot roots. We’re extremely dry, 12-14” rainfall, extremely sandy soil. So moisture was a key component to do successful gardening. So the lights come on and I think why wouldn’t everyone do this? I’ve been covering the soil ever since! If
wow that person doesn’t know how to garden
What do you mean pulling the tomato plants?
I mimic nature. So the plants especially in the no-till garden where it’s right by the school. Where people are not looking at it, mostly production. let mother nature break them down into the systems.
A good way to explain it, I’ll ask students if they had any diseases, in the particular garden. They go there about 2-3 times a year, it’s so easy to take care of don’t have pull weeds. So we don’t go there much.
I’ll ask students if they had any diseases?
They will say. “we had powdery mildew in the pumpkins
we took the vines to the compost or the dump we removed them because the spores from the powdery mildew would get on the plants next year
I guess if you consider
aphids a pest, we had aphids in the sunflowers?
I’ll say how did the aphids get in the sunflowers?
They’ll say “The ants herded them.”
the lady bug lacewings
and the black wasps
if we took all the plants and take them away where would the beneficial insects go?
The kids would say “they are in the egg state underneath the leaves and you
One kid will raise their hand and say, “they would be in the landfill in Glasgow!”
we let them break
Tomatoes grow on fences so we can do a lot of vertical growing, so we leave them, and the new ones next year just grow up there next year.
We harvest the tomatoes, we harvest them green, so the tomatoes aren’t dropping too many seeds on the ground although you get a volunteer occasionally. We transplants plants, grown in the greenhouse.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
We had a hail storm that destroyed most things to the ground, except of the strongest, the corn which was only left with stalks
planted a lot of new plantings in what we call the edible school yard, we had put in some new planting on the black fence of the school that we consider to be a wasteland
watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins, 10-12 of kinds of winter squash, some of which was on a teepee we built out of rebar.
vining up the teepee
everything was just beat in the ground
winter squash and pumpkins come back instead of growing on a great big long vine, these vines bushed out, sprawled all over the ground instead of growing long growing up the teepee
Our Northern GA candy roaster has done unbelievable since that hail storm, which we’re only 60 days out, from the hail storm. It has fruit that’s mature
Ton’s of them… most excelling…
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
I’m always excited in how to motivate people into how to do more natural gardening and consuming local foods, so that’s always my challenge.
Are you gonna tell us about how you got the local beef in the cafeteria?
Im such a beef geek!
My students raised beef. We’re
We sell feeder calves. Most people only finish out the beef they’re gonna eat themselves.
My son was still in school a few years ago, and him and some of his buddies said,
run them on shares
“why don’t we just donate our own beef?”
Had done some food miles, discovered our beef was coming from Houston TX, we are eating Brahma beef which is some of the worst beef in America in our school system?
Let’s just eat our own, to heck with all the rest of this stuff.
Let’s figure out how to do that…, then we run into policy of where it had to be slaughtered… it wasn’t economically sound business to donate the beef, because someone would have to drive it all the way to Chinook
2 1/2 hours to
wait two weeks with a freezer unit and get it back if they got it here, we had no place to store it…
the easiest way to solve this
Katy Bark the head of nutrition in the state… we have become wonderful friends, we already had a long relationship from before the beef thing came up, so we can buy beef from Chinook, which is what we do. So this is the 4th year of feeding the students.
about the second time the cooks served it. I go check on the cooks … were so excited
we served 100% today, because of the beef meal.
I was like Yahoo!” I had no idea what this meant, so I went to the secretary and said was does this mean that we served 100%?
She said, “that means 100% of the population of the school today!”
“We don’t do that every day?”
I must have had this dumbfounded look on because there’s no where else for the kids to eat. I have become extremely passionate. Beef is a given here…
wasting about 90% of the beef product.
We have 0 waste her on beef day. Picture of the waste can! There is no waste on the day we serve beef in the school.
I like that image of the milk cartons in the garbage. So are now other schools in Montana getting beef from Chinook?
Can get through Cisco, it is a little more expensive, but when you look at the big picture it’s the only way to go. That should be the ultimate. So I try to get people to think about being part of the solution instead of being the problem.
Food waste is part of the big problem.
According to Jonathan Bloom’s book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), we’re wasting 55% of the food that we grow in America.
That’s not acceptable. It makes me quite mad, we have to try to make sure that we stop!
high quality food is grown locally, no matter the cost, eventually the cost will balance out, because if you figure the cost of the trucking, the miles, the energy it took
We added up the food miles had 7334 miles. In that meal they had beef, mashed potatoes, wheat roll, an apple
that many miles to get that food in our
to less then 900….
can’t serve meat out of our own local butcher
policy in the way
That’s crazy, Montana’s such a huge beef and agricultural state. We have huge farms and land and also cattle.
We’re a net exporter. Most people don’t recognize that Montana exports,
I think the numbers are even...