An Interview With Allison Rooney

8 Aug


Cloud Nine Farm




Allison Rooney is the diligent head farmer of Cloud Nine Farm, just outside of Wilsall, Montana. We had the great pleasure of working and learning alongside her for two weeks. She is a great teacher. With patience and clarity, Allison explained her methods, ideas, and goals. Every day I felt as though I could complete a new task on my own. Allison is a strong role model, and I would like to share some of her thoughts.

The house was a bit chaotic on our last day. There were three volunteers staying with the Rooneys, all leaving simultaneously. Bags were shuffling about. Foot steps moved a bit more heavily than usual across the floor. Move out day and laundry day coincided, so packs and piles cluttered the small family room. Amidst it all, six year old Wyatt held his loyal post as house guardian against invading aliens. The sounds of his imaginary laser guns were a faithful reminder that us earthlings were safe.  Nestled on the couch with needle and thread in hand, Allison calmly patched up Wyatt’s torn book bag. Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal serene scene for an interview, but for a half hour she graciously answered the following questions.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a farmer? Who or What inspired you?

A: I suppose when I was about 26 years old. That would have been in 2000.  Honestly, I’d have to say it’s kind of cheesy, but the magazine Mother Earth News inspired me. It’s about sustainability and self reliance. They would often have articles on gardening and small farming topics and I thought it was really interesting. My grandparents always had really big gardens and they grew lots of strawberries and blueberries and corn. They kept bees. They had us help them in the garden, and so I would say that was also a big source of inspiration for me.

Q: What was the most difficult part of launching a new farm?

A: The most difficult part was probably finding an affordable piece of land. That and getting people to take seriously or understand what it was that I was trying to do. It was a pretty foreign idea for people before organic farming was big in the media. I was trying to get started before the concept of local farmers, farmers’ markets, and eating chemical free food was popular. It was before that was in the mainstream. It took 5 years of figuring out how to do it, and how to make the money to afford a piece of land.

Q: What has been the most difficult part of maintaining a farm?

A: I think just building up the infrastructure on a bare piece of land. There are no structures, no water, no trees. That’s been the biggest part of keeping it going.

Cloud Nine Farm is located on former ranch land that was over-grazed. It is a dusty, arid piece of land that the Rooneys are trying (successfully) to revitalize.


Q: What is your favorite crop or plant family to grow?

A: Garlic. It’s an extremely hardy plant, and it’s low maintenance. It produces an amazing culinary and medicinal end product. I like the process of harvesting it, bundling it up, and hanging it to dry. Then later on, trimming the plant to get the finished head of garlic. It’s a neat fall harvest process.

Q: What is your favorite farming method?

A: I’d say the permaculture philosophy would be my favorite because they encourage you to mimic nature and take advantage of nature’s efficiencies. It reduces the burden of heavy labor.

Q: Do you have least favorite farming method or crop? Why?

A: Beans would be my least favorite crop because we never get any (she laughs). We never see a real bean harvest here. I’d love for them to grow if hail, frost, or bugs didn’t always batter them down. They’re tender, and they need really warm nights to do well. They need certain microbial associations in the soil to do well. That could take years to build up.  We always try to get a bean harvest, but we haven’t been successful yet.

Q: If you could farm anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?

A: I think I would choose southern Oregon because of the climate, and the proximity to the ocean and the mountains. You can grow such a wide diversity of fruit trees and nut trees and bushes there.

Q: Do you feel that the local/organic movement is becoming more popular? What signs do you see that suggest this?

A: Well, I do feel that it’s becoming more popular. I see an increasing media presence about topics related to organic farming or local food systems. We have a lot more happening in Montana at the University level with the development of small scale farming degree programs. Infrastructure for colleges to buy local produce is being developed. There is a rising demand for organic food in school and hospital cafeterias. There’s an institutional demand, and there’s a huge consumer demand for farmer’s markets, restaurants, and CSAs/buying clubs.

Q: Could you explain what a buying club is?

A buying club is an underground farmer’s market. A group of diverse farmers, beef producers, cheese, wool, veggie, etc. gather privately and meet with the client base that they assemble over time on a regular basis. Basically, it’s word of mouth selling. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone that is interested in starting a farm/CSA?

A: Research farms in their area, or in the area they want to settle down in and get the chance to work on one of those farms for a long period of time. I’d say at least a season. I would encourage them to research land prices, and talk with existing growers about their business plans. Learn how much they are spending to get up their farms and businesses. The aspiring farmer can then have a clear picture of the actual costs required to start a small farm.

Q: Concerning the environment, what do you feel is the most pressing agricultural issue in the US ?

A: I’d say the proliferation of GMO crops, and the lack of protective regulations surrounding their use and release into the natural world.

Q: Concerning health, what do you feel is the most pressing food-related issue in the US?

A: I think it’s the lack of oversight and regulation of chemicals in industrial farming, and how they affect watersheds, human health, and the wider natural world in general, including all insects, fish, and animals. The chemical impact on health is not regulated. It’s not monitored in terms of residues, and how chemicals interact.

 Q: Any tips on dealing with the unexpected?    

A: You need to be very detached. You have to reach a level of detachment where you try not to get too emotional about the outcomes. It’s more about the process, making decisions in response to circumstances to the best of your ability. I would say not letting yourself be consumed by anger, or regret or frustration, because it zaps your vital energy and your ability to react to the unexpected.

Kamaria, Allison, Me, Doug, and Wyatt




3 Responses to “An Interview With Allison Rooney”

  1. Sophia August 9, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    What a great blog. This was so inspiring to read!

    • kateriphoto August 19, 2010 at 1:32 am #

      I agree! Thomas told me about this blog, so I had to check it out… Wonderful stories, and it sounds like you are having an amazing experience.

      • Nicole August 23, 2010 at 1:12 am #

        Thank you for the positive feedback. It inspires us to write and photograph more! Kateri, are you in the bay area? I’m headed your way in less than a week….

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