Libby couple grow hobby garden into small-scale farm

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  • Rudy Geber holds chioggia beets and carrots he picked as samples of what was being grown at Hoot Owl Farm on May 22. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Rudy and Bonnie Geber of Hoot Owl Farm survey one of their lettuce crops on May 22, 2018. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Rudy Geber holds two varieties of radishes grown at Hoot Owl Farm -- a French breakfast, bottom, and a rover -- on May 22, 2018. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Bonnie and Rudy Geber sell produce at Libby Farmers Market on May 24. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

  • Rudy Geber holds chioggia beets and carrots he picked as samples of what was being grown at Hoot Owl Farm on May 22. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Rudy and Bonnie Geber of Hoot Owl Farm survey one of their lettuce crops on May 22, 2018. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Rudy Geber holds two varieties of radishes grown at Hoot Owl Farm -- a French breakfast, bottom, and a rover -- on May 22, 2018. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

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    Bonnie and Rudy Geber sell produce at Libby Farmers Market on May 24. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

Bonnie and Rudy Geber, in 2011, bought a 20-ish acre plot of land off Highway 37, northeast of Jennings, not intending to farm it. They wanted an off-grid, self-built home of their own, they said, in the woods and solar powered.

But they’d been gardening for about four years and had always enjoyed it, Rudy said, “so we started a garden here and got more and more into it.”

So much more that last year they started Hoot Owl Farm, whose produce is a growing presence in peoples’ kitchens, on restaurant menus and at farmers markets in and around Libby and Troy.

It took “a lot of backbreaking rock clearing” and other work with an excavator to clear the land for planting, Rudy said. But a good aspect, southern exposure and the fact that it had never been planted worked in their favor.

Eventually, “(it) got to a point where we were growing more than we needed,” Rudy said. They began learning about market farming — the small-scale production of produce for sale — while giving away what they couldn’t consume to friends and family. The word got out, and the Gebers saw that market farming was “gaining steam” all around the country.

“At some point it just seemed feasible,” Bonnie said.

The couple had been working for the U.S. Forest service for more than a dozen years — Bonnie as a geologist, Rudy as a culturist. In June 2017, Bonnie left her post to tend the farm full-time; Rudy followed suit about nine months later.

“They were great jobs,” Rudy said. “We just wanted to…”

“...Change it up,” Bonnie said.

Hoot Owl Farm’s core business is CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. CSA customers pre-pay for a 20-week (or 10-week biweekly) subscription to receive a delivery of whatever six to eight items the farm is growing. They began with five customers last year “to see how to do it,” Bonnie said; this year they capped the number of subscribers at 23, who paid $500 for a full subscription or $250 for half.

The weekly mix of produce varies over the course of the growing season and is determined by what grows best at any particular time. By season’s end, a CSA subscriber likely will have received green onions, carrots, tomatoes, basil, swiss chard, peppers, potatoes, leeks, spinach, artichokes, garlic, arugula, kale and various salad mixes and microgreens, among other items.

The farm also counts as regular customers three local restaurants — The Black Board Bistro, River Bend Restaurant and the Gracious Table — and four others have expressed interest. Every Monday each receives an email newsletter outlining what’s available that week and will be picked fresh first thing Wednesday for Thursday delivery.

“We want to make sure we have consistent quality salad every week (for the restaurants),” Rudy said, comprising a mix of up to four lettuces and sometimes arugula or baby kale. Restaurants can also choose from the other available produce.

The Gebers are also a fixture at the Troy and Libby farmers markets, and they have set up shop at the Cabinet Peaks Medical Center Health Fair and the Kootenai Harvest Festival.

Hoot Owl Farm has grown sufficiently well that, having maxed out the currently cleared growing space at its main location, the Gebers recently planted a roughly one-acre plot near the River Bend Restaurant. There, because of its distance from the home farm, they’ll plant potatoes, squash and other vegetables that require less intensive attention, Rudy said.

The farm isn’t certified organic, though Bonnie said that might happen within a year or two. Meanwhile, they follow organic farming practices, and use no herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO varieties.

They also run the farm using as many self-built items as possible, noting that the increasing popularity of market farming has given rise to numerous do-it-yourself plans. The farm’s washing and packing area, for example, includes a washing machine that Bonnie converted into a giant yet gentle salad spinner they refer to as the “salad spa jacuzzi.”

Looking ahead, the Gebers hope to keep making their operations more efficient and therefore more financially sustainable “for years to come,” Bonnie said. They expect to add more covered growing space next year to expand their growing season earlier in spring and later into the fall. They’d also like to expand their crops to increase their CSA membership and provide more wholesale produce.

To learn more about Hoot Owl Farm, visit www.hootowlfarm.net, or call 406-318-5339.

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