On a balmy July evening, Patrick Certain bustled around his kitchen, cooking dinner. A dozen people were about to arrive to his farm to help harvest his garlic crop, and he was preparing to feed them. Even in a tiny-home on wheels, this is a regular occurrence; when you run a small-scale, independent farm your best currency is food.
Together with his partner, Claire Overholt, Patrick co-owns and manages Stone Soup Garden in Laurel, a regenerative farm founded on the connection between healthy food and intentional community. They spend just as much time tending to their crops as they do tending to the people who support their operation. Some show their support by buying their produce, others by lending a hand on volunteer nights like this one. For Patrick, working in local agriculture gives him a sense of camaraderie. “Nothing feels better than working in community and getting to be directly connected to the people that you’re feeding,” he says.
The two primarily retail their produce at local farmers markets and through the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub. It was the Food Hub, in fact, that led Patrick to Northern Plains in 2018 when he moved to Billings and attended a Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council meeting. It happened to be the meeting where members voted to start crowdfunding for the Food Hub. “It was a really good time to end up back in Billings with what my objectives were,” says Patrick, “because it immediately plugged me into a community of people that were focused on local food.”
Not only do efforts like the Food Hub help sustain Stone Soup financially, but being connected to the Northern Plains community gives Patrick and Claire hope and encouragement. In a time when young farmers are few and far between, they take a note from longtime farmers, ranchers, and members who fought “Goliaths” of obstacles and are still around to tell the tale. Patrick and Claire’s most urgent Goliaths these days are the droughts, floods, and soil disturbances brought about by climate change. However, Claire says being part of Northern Plains means they aren’t alone. “That’s a lot of the value [for] anyone who’s finding Northern Plains,” she says. You can “face something that feels larger than you.”
The two recently hosted their first Soil Crawl at the farm and shared about their challenges as young, beginning farmers. Patrick’s farming gene “skipped a generation.” His grandfather was an innovative, regenerative farmer, utilizing award-winning soil health practices. While Patrick grew up tending to vegetables in his family garden, it wasn’t until college when he worked on an organic vegetable farm in Bridger that the seed for Stone Soup was planted. “It was such a joy to work with like-minded people on a common goal,” Patrick says. He wanted to create a space for his local community to not only be nourished by his food, but feel invested in the farm’s success through everyone’s active participation. With no land or equipment to inherit, Patrick relied on those around him to get started. Like the parable, Stone Soup “isn’t a one-person operation,” but the culmination of friends, colleagues, and mentors offering their time, knowledge, free compost, and more.
Patrick and Claire hope the Stone Soup mindset will only grow and spread across his community and Yellowstone County. “We need more farmers, we know that’s true,” says Patrick, “but we need to present a viable model for them.” He encourages anyone who wants to ensure the health of our soils and the prosperity of our communities to support their local farmer. Claire adds, “Encourage other folks that there’s a future for small-scale and thoughtfully produced food.”
With dinner now simmering on the stove, the sun starts to set over the farm. Patrick and Claire’s round of volunteers arrive in succession, each greeted with hugs, and go about their work amid rows of blooming native flowers, plump tomatoes, and greens of every hue. One volunteer sips a glass of wine in-between loading a wheelbarrow with heads of garlic. The soundtrack of the night is laughter, chatter, and the chirp of crickets. No one will go home hungry.