Historic Missoula Valley ranch could find its way back to ag

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Freedom Gardens is working with Missoula County to secure a lease to open an educational farm at the historic LaLonde Ranch west of the city. (Photo courtesy of Missoula County)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

An historic Missoula Valley ranch may get a second chance at agriculture if an agreement in the works between Missoula County and a local nonprofit comes together over the next few weeks.

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday took the initial step in granting Freedom Gardens use of the LaLonde Ranch, where the nonprofit looks to model 21st century urban farming and contrast it with techniques employed in the 19th century.

As proposed, Freedom Gardens would plant as many as 150 fruit trees, including apricot and plum, and erect a greenhouse with an aquaponics system. It would also open a kitchen, grow food on terraced plots, and harvest more than 14,000 pounds of produce in 58 varieties.

Crafting a lease agreeable to both the nonprofit and the county, however, could take time.

“We’re asking the county commissioners to issue a lease for the entire property and the buildings,” said Freedom Gardens spokesperson Susan Estep. “We’d like to get started this year.”

The LeLonde Ranch is one of the few remaining historic ranches in the Missoula Valley. It consists of several buildings that include a log cabin dating back to 1877, when Adam LeLonde was “proving up” his land.

The date of the ranch house is unknown, though historians believe it was built after 1888 using materials from the Hollenbeck Brickyard, once located less than two miles south of the home when the valley was still open and relatively undeveloped.

Now, the ranch and it’s remaining 7 acres is bounded on all sides by the county’s growing Development Park and Interstate 90. The park has been reserved for technology and industrial uses, and the county would have to extend certain exemptions to Freedom Gardens to ensure it complies with the regulations guiding the park’s existing property owners.

“We’ve been promoting industrial and technology development in the area,” said Dori Brownlow, director of the county’s development district. “It needs to comply with the guidelines. Planting certain things would have to go through the property owner’s association.”

Other complicating matters would also have to be worked out by the county’s legal staff for the lease to come together. A caretaker currently resides in the historic ranch house and would have to find another place to live.

The site’s well is also in poor condition, according to Larry Farnes, facilities manager for the county. Repairing the well would carry a cost of roughly $13,400.

“The piping in the ground is no good,” said Farnes. “It’s rusted out and we haven’t used it for several years. It’s more expensive to fix it than it is to use Mountain Water.”

The county was also considering the property for a new community hazardous waste drop-off location, though it’s likely that will land somewhere else. But the county is currently using the ranch’s barn to store mechanical equipment, as well as a smaller ranch building to store furniture items until the remodel of the Missoula County Courthouse is completed.

Commissioners agreed that once the remodel is finished, unneeded furniture items could be sold at auction, though that would also take time. To work around the challenge, they suggested a phasing plan that would initially give Freedom Gardens use of the land and the ranch house.

Members of the nonprofit agreed, though they’re looking to make use of all the ranch buildings sooner rather than later.

“The hydroponic system and greenhouse are valued at $50,000, and they belong to our organization,” said Estep. “We have concerns around the security of the property. Our answer to that is to have someone on the land 24-7.”

Matt Jennings, a deputy attorney with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, said drafting a lease could take several weeks with all the issues in play. The county is working to develop more guidelines and consistency in how it enters into leases, marking a change from how leases were handled in the past.

“Over the last couple years, there’s been a renewed focus from our office trying to do things accurately and in compliance with the statutes,” said Jennings. “Some leases we have from the ’80s that are ongoing, if somebody challenged them, they didn’t comply with the statutes and they still don’t.”

By rule, Jennings said, the county is advised against leasing public property unless it’s first determined that the property can’t be sold or used for another value. The rule was intended to keep local government from competing against private interests

But in certain circumstances, Jennings said, there are exceptions to the rule.

“If you chose to do so, it’s limited by a 10-year lease, and it’s also limited to some sort of determination that there’s a public benefit and a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. There’s other ways you can look into value.”

Allowing for educational uses and preserving the county’s agricultural heritage could fit the legal guidelines, Jennings said.

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The old log cabin at the LaLonde Ranch dates to 1877, making it one of the oldest standing structures in the Missoula Valley.

Commissioners agreed that the LaLonde Ranch wasn’t needed to conduct essential county business, with the exception of the out-building, which is needed for storage. Selling the property was unsavory given it’s historic value, commissioners said.

“We have reasons why we don’t want to sell the property,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “We want to preserve the culture and historic nature it has, so we don’t want an immediate sale.”

Because approval of the lease would lead to a change in uses, other issues regarding agriculture would have to be negotiated with Freedom Gardens.

“You’re going to be neighbors to people,” Commissioner Jean Curtiss told members of the nonprofit. “Composting is an important part of what you want to do. Where would be the best location to do that so it has the least impact on your neighbors? Those are some things we’ll have to negotiate.”

By occupying the ranch, Freedom Gardens believes it can increase production and market its produce through the Farmers Market and sales at produce stands. It also plans to wholesale its items to local restaurants and CSA shares.

Estep said the nonprofit plans to open and rent a kitchen, where entrepreneurs would create value-added products. In additional to growing food, it would also launch an educational component, offering classes on everything from worm composting to soil testing and tree grafting.