Women of the dirt

said Jonda Crosby, executive directorof the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO. “There is an amazing synergy there, and it’s a kind of community that isn’t just geographic, but also philosophical and technical.”

“I didn’t have much information when I started,” Jenny said. “Now I know there are a lot of people out there that have a lot of questions about doing some of the things we are doing.” In that vein, Jenny writes a column for the Bozeman Food Co-op, takes calls from farmers all over the country, and opened her farm to an AERO tour earlier this summer.

“It’s all about sharing what we have learned.”

There is still a long way to go. Crosby said Montana lacks much of the infrastructure — especially in delivery and processing — which keeps the state from having a vibrant, sustaining and profitable pasture-to-plate food system.

But that is both women’s goal, and something they will continue to work towards.

“It’s a slow process,” Jenny said. “But if we take it step by step, it will improve our lives economically and socially. It keeps us and our land healthy,” she said.

Jenny and her famiy bought the  ranch under the shadows of the Tobacco Root Mountains just outside Pony, Montana.

Most days she milks her Jersey cow, feeds her young chickens and puts the cows out to pasture before the rain really begins to wail.

Sabo, along with her husband, Mark, and their two sons Riley and Kiril, live and work on the ranch located between Pony and Harrison in Madison County.

And while the Sabos may seem like your average hard-working ranch family, their ranch is anything but average.

The entire operation is non-toxic and their home is completely off-grid. They raise pastured pigs and poultry, Devon beef cows and Jersey dairy cows and grow vegetables year-round in a chicken-heated greenhouse.

Jenny, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, married Mark in 1999. Jenny had originally purchased land outside Pony and had been leasing it to neighboring ranchers.

But when she became pregnant with the couple’s first child, she felt that she had to dramatically change her food choices and how she was caring for her land. But she didn’t know the first place to start.

“I had no background,” said Jenny. “I was not raised on a farm so I didn’t know how to get the thing off the ground.” So she started to read, experiment, and ask lots of questions.

Eventually she was put in touch with AERO, a nonprofit celebrating its 35th anniversary this year that pushes sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and environmental quality.

“I’ve worked really closely with the Sabos for many years,” said Crosby.

Crosby said the family is an archetype for farmers who slowly want to change to a more sustainable system.

“They are definitely a model,” Crosby said. “Jenny and Mark are very careful about what they are doing. They didn’t get into it like a flash-and-burn; they built it up over time and have been on their place getting better every year.”

Jenny and Mark started with just a small plot — and raised beef cows completely non-toxic. Then they expanded the operation, slowly but surely.

Now, about a decade later, the Sabos’ straw bale insulated ranch home is entirely powered by solar and wind energy.

They raise vegetables year-round from a greenhouse that is heated by chickens.

“We don’t use one drop of power on this,” said Jenny, while negotiating past a large, blooming peach tree that grows in the greenhouse.

The vegetables end up on their plates and in the summer they sell some at market.

They are working towards developing a herd of full-blooded Devon beef cattle, “the butcher’s breed,” according to Jenny, a tough animal that can be grass-fed and is sustainable in Montana. They also have Jersey dairy cows, one of the top-producing milk breeds.

Their pastured pigs and chickens, which the Sabos move around their property, are kept safe by using electric fences.

Jenny said the pigs “plow up the ground,” increasing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the soil, which improves next year’s crop production.

That’s the way the Sabos look at a farm — as an interconnected ecosystem, and if worked in harmony, the land produces more and better products. And the soil is better off because of it.

“We are completely dedicated to the health of our soil,” Jenny said.

6 Responses

  1. Wow I would so like to be a part of your group. I know and respect quite a few of you! I am always eager to learn more about our animals and our land. We live on 5 acres outside of Manhattan. My family is very involved 4h ,farm fair, outreach with our animals etc. I love to share our place with others especially kids! looking forward to hearing from youall! Blessings,

  2. Hi there~my family lives in Bozeman city limits. We have the most incredible cat I’ve ever known. His name is Pickles. He is super friendly, bold, not intimidated by anything really. He likes to wonder and visit people in a several block radius. Unfortunately, he has discovered the cat hater’s house around the block. They have low hanging bird feeders, leave their doors wide open– you can guess what happens…Pickles is an excellent hunter! These “neighbors” contest that he’s in only cat that poops in their flower beds and that goes even goes in their yard. They have been aggressive toward him and in turn he pooped in their screened in porch. They told me Monday that they want to kill him (but said they won’t) but that they might take him somewhere and drop him. They won’t close their door to keep him out and are unwilling to problems solve. I’m afraid they will do something terrible to him. They were hostile when I tried talking with them. My 8 year old daughter and I are crazy in love with Pickles. He has been inside our house since Sunday night…he is not meant to be an inside only cat. My heart breaks at the thought of losing him, but I want him to be happy and free and safe. If there was someone out there that needs a skilled hunter and lots of love I would be so grateful to meet you and talk about options for Pickles. He is really an indoor/outdoor kind of guy. He is neutered and all his shots are up to date. He gets along with dogs, chickens, kids, almost all people, just not crazy people. He’s a long hair grey cat with beautiful green eyes.

  3. I just heard of you gals and guys. I would like to attend your next meeting. My husband and I have sheep(5) and I process our wool for quilt batting. We also raise natural lamb-no addatives or hormones for meat. I will look forward to learning more about your group.

  4. About the greenhouse heated by chickens: are you referring to their body heat? I imagine it smells real swell in a warm greenhouse with chickens and…well…chicken poop wafting in the air :) And how do you keep the chickens out of the growing food in the greenhouse? My experience with chickens is that they eat every kind of food, growing, cooked or spoiled, they don’t care.

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