Josh Slotnick to retire from teaching and farming to serve as Missoula County Commissioner

josh slotnick

(Photo by Chad Harder)

As the fall of 2018 approaches, it brings with it the end of an era. EVST lecturer and PEAS Farm Director, Josh Slotnick, will retire from teaching to take up an elected seat as one of three Missoula County Commissioners in January. Josh and others started Garden City Harvest (GCH) in 1996 after returning to Missoula from Cornell where he completed a master’s degree (and thesis) in student farming. Josh’s efforts to establish a student farm in Missoula coincided with the infamous 1995 Farm Bill and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. This “contract” actually drastically cut food stamps from the Farm Bill. At the same time, local food programs such as the WIC program and food banks didn’t have access to fresh food and vegetables. After a series of conversations about food security (a term unheard of at that time) with Caitlin DeSilvey, who was then Executive Director of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, and Mary Pittaway, who was running the WIC program, they decided to start Garden City Harvest. “The irony is that we actually secured a $150,000 competitive food security grant from the US Department of Agriculture,” says Josh, “the very agency that was trying to eliminate food security or food stamps for the poor.”

“My next step,” says Josh, “was to go to the Dean at the University of Montana in the fall of 1996 and ask for an Adjunct Faculty position to run the farm.” Josh secured enough funding to pay someone about eight bucks an hour for the duration of the grant. “Then I went to the Environmental Studies program and pitched the project to Tom Roy,” chuckles Josh. “EVST was lukewarm about the idea because, in those days, food security and community-run farms were a new concept and somewhat unheard of.” However, according to Josh, Tom Roy said “I don’t exactly know what you’re doing but if you can make it happen then yes!”

And make it happen, he did!

Today, GCH and EVST operate the 10-acre PEAS Farm as partners. GCH raises the funds needed to run the farm operations, and EVST provides a faculty member and the students to work on the farm. “This is a great model of a campus and community partnership, says Josh. Aside from his role as teacher and faculty, Josh is also the farm director for GCH and oversees the students and the CSA, which brings in about 80% of the revenue for the overhead. “The CSA provides students with great experience,” says Josh. “Students are involved in something that is real, both from a financial and time perspective. It’s a real business and has some intensity around it. The food has to be beautiful and delivered on time to customers. I have learned that this is a great canvas for inclusion, hard work and dedication,” says Josh. “ It’s not about micro-managing, it’s about making sure that people have the tools they need to do the job and then getting out of the way.” "Josh Slotnick’s mentorship was exactly what I needed as a lost 19 year-old trying to find my place and purpose in the community I had grown up in,” says EVST alum Kaya Juda-Neslon. “Through my time in both Josh’s EVST classroom, and my semesters spent on the PEAS farm, Josh’s persistent and passionate, yet gentle guidance has brought me to where I am today, with a deep love and commitment to building youth community through sustainable agriculture."

Josh’s diverse background in farming has certainly played a role in his success. After completing his undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of Montana in 1988, Josh joined the Peace Corps and went to Thailand to help set up farms and teach English. “This is where I got the bug for farming,“ Josh confesses. After the Peace Corps he attended a six-month residency course at UC Santa Cruz—an apprenticeship in ecological horticulture where he learned about student farming. But Josh also credits his undergraduate experience at UM for his success. “It was a great education. I learned to read, write and think. This has been the basis of all of my work.” Josh will no longer have a role in the farm or GCH in 2019. “It feels really sad because this is all I’ve done since the Peace Corps,” reminisces Josh. “My new position as County Commissioner will still really be about community development, but instead it will be indoors and working mostly with an older population.” When asked why the change, Josh said, “Doing this work has become part of the public culture of Missoula. For some reason when I talk, people seem to listen and I wondered if I could take this further and do more public good with it. Garden City Harvest is doing well and doesn’t need me. So now I want to explore how can I take this platform, learn new skills and do more good.”

Chris Comer, Dean of the College and Sciences wrote of Josh, “I had the good pleasure of watching him up-close as he delivered his TedX talk a few years ago. He displayed the fire of a preacher, but the soul of a humanist. We are lucky to have him speaking for us now in political forums. Your friends in the UM College of Humanities and Sciences are proud of you.”