Jim Swanson shares his journey of raising llamas at the Fantasy Land Ranch in Bigfork, MT and raising vegetables in a Montana rain forest climate. Living near the famous Flathead Cherry Orchards on the East Side of Flathead Lake, Jim turns hard work and initiative into a successful life living in Montana’s beautiful outdoors.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Bigfork (elevation 2900’) is like a rain forrest. We get double the rainfall in Kalispell, same with snowfall, they’ll get a couple of inches in town and we’ll end up with a foot out of the deal. The confluence of the Columbia range runs up there behind me and then there’s the beginning of the Swan Range and where those two ranges meet, is what makes it’s own little weather system there.
The lake has a lot to do with it, the extra moisture in the air helps with the greenery and ability to grow fruit. Born in Whitefish grew up in Eureka.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
My memory with my first gardening experiences was with Mom, always had a garden, real nice flower gardens and vegetables. My introduction and she was totally organic herself, so that was the only kind of garden we ever really knew.
What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?
Just pretty much making your own soil. Not adding any artificial nutrients or anything like that.
Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?
Just knowing how she did it. She mixed her own own soil. Using cow manure mixed it horse manure and with sawdust. Started with the llama dung down here at Fantasy Land. Have 6 females now, no males, a few years back had a grizzly bear come in and get our baby up and coming male, and then our oldest male, poor Benny he succumbed to old age. don’t have a breeding program anymore.
Just on a whim, the mountain trader will get you every time. Reading there were 11 llamas for sale, make an offer. Had all this property – just a little over 5 acres. A buddy of mine’s dad had an orchard on the lake, and ended up with a whole bunch of old wire for helping fence a cherry orchard. Once my property was fenced I was just looking for something to raise, so in the middle of one of the winters (1996) over 10 feet of snow in the yard here, renting a bobcat to keep the road open and it had started in early Nov and snowed feet at a time, and it was just after Thanksgiving, we got a huge snowstorm and then at Christmas time we bought the llamas.
Fantasy Land Llamas.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
From my mom, helping her in the garden watching her mixing her soil. As soon as I had the llamas, creating as much dung as they do, the males can crap in the same spot as
Benny had a couple different spots, always in the rock pile, the females, would just crap where they were eating, so they started keeping their dung in the same pile, and that makes it so easy to clean up, and I have a big spot where I keep it.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
Tomato crop. Peppers all different kinds, have a little bit of hot house on our front porch covered with clear plastic. They all did real good. Wasn’t a real phenomenal year for squash, but still ended up with a couple of 100 lb., still have a few spaghetti, and butternuts. Squash generally does real well too.
What do you think led to that success?
Mainly the soil, using the composted llama dung, when I do my beds I just take and add more of the raw dung in and mix that up a bit and then put some of the compost too as well. Grow right in the ground in prepared beds.
Got a couple of different Costco structures -10‘ wide x 20’ long, and I just leave the weed mat down, cause I don’t have time for weeding. It’s just amazing. Used to just use black plastic, anything to keep the light off of the other seeds.
Is there something you would do different this year coming up or want to try/new that you’re excited about?
Got some new plants that we’re gonna grow this year. Going to make a compost tea this year.
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well last season.
I guess sales on the llama dung could have been up, 50 bag of composted dung for $10. Feed them hay year round, at least ½ a flake each day and then pellets. Hay is a base to put pellets on. Only a few have shelters, they each have designated area they eat.
Can you use the hair or fur for wool or yarn?
Carding to get all fibers and the stuff out of the hair. First time I set and started trying to clean and card it, I spent about an hour and ½ trying to card the llamas by hand and came out with just a small handful so that was the end of that. Now they got a group that comes in and will do all that for you.
Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.
Squash, here in the last few years I’ve been trying to grow some melons. Got a spot on top of the hill where my original dung piles were and that’s where I put these Costco things up,
I have a small greenhouse down at the house where I get things started.
Growing cantaloupe, watermelon, and a musk melon.
Having them right on top of my hill, so they’re getting the most sunlight, till sunset still getting some light up to dark, and the llama dung.
Pretty amazed by that. Like the heirloom seeds. Save seed out of everything out of everything we grow.
Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.
Carrots, don’t want to grow carrots in composted dung. Haven’t ever tried to grow them up on top of the hill. Used to grow. tomatitos, peppers and homemade salsa etc, homemade tomato juice.
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
Weeding is the worst part of growing your own garden, that’s why I recommend using that weed mat. That’s what eats up all your time.
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
Ohhh harvesting I guess.
Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.
Best one was accidental, that’s how I stumbled on the composted llama dung. We had the lower garden here across from the house here, I had some tomatoes that froze I hadn’t harvested, and I threw in the compost, and one of those seeds came up and I had my best tomato plant ever was like 6 feet tall and just loaded with fruit and that’s when I realized that’s the best thing to grow in. Then my mom grew them in her rose beds, then she started growing award winning roses, and then that’s how I started selling the composted llama dung.
Have you ever entered a fair?
No, I guess I haven’t. Thought about entering a bud I had that was about a foot long and as big around as your arm.
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
Probably have to be my crane, 10,000 lb. mobile crane, was a utility truck, has a post hole for putting in telephone poles … With the bigger 18’ poke and fill that hole with dung and just plant on top of that, gonna try that this year.
A little hand spade, a little hand deal you twist, that works real good for busting up your soil where your gonna seed. Or my leather-man.
Eating or harvesting vegetables or fruit on time?
Depends on if you’re planning on saving it on time is don’t wash it till you’re ready to eat it. Don’t pull the end off of your tomatoes or pepper till your ready to eat it, as soon as your ready to eat pull
Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last?
Last year did 25 quart jars of dill pickles, some green beans, fruits, a freezer jam. Canned up a bunch of cherries, and stuffed the pit hole with huckleberries. Just something we wanted to try. Made some chocolate covered Parker cherries, and some Parker chocolate huckleberries.
Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?
When I can those I have a pressure cooker, so for pies, my wife just made me a nice cherry pie.
Pit em, then stuff one or two hucks in a pit hole. Put a little bit of sugar cherry water but not much and then just pressure cook it and their own juices will come out. Do a cherry-huckleberry syrup for pancakes. Just smash the cherries and berries together with a little sugar, freezer jam it or can it. Maybe use a little bit of pectin, I usually don’t as long as I use it within a month.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
Vegetable stir fry. Really good luck with the zucchinis. Get some pretty good size zukes. Like to cut it in chunks and cook it with stewed tomatoes, a little bacon in it, anything to make it good. Another way is to grate the zucchini and make like a cheese mixed in with a crust, like a vegetable patty. Make some cracker crumbs on each side and then put some egg and fry it in butter n then flip it, or do that same thing with a beer batter, flour based batter.
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can
High times. Winter time have time to read, but don’t now.
Final question – if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
If we as individuals are willing to take some of your income, and put it into a renewable resouce invest in solar, or wind, solar is probably your best option, but make some of your power you use yourself everyday. If you work your way towards it, you can lessen the amount of power you have to buy. And what causes more degradation to the planet is these coal powered electrical plants. So that would be my recommendation is for everybody to …. make some biodiesel – turn some french fry oil into diesel. The wife and I each try to buy a solar panel. A few years back had a 24 volt system. Had a wind generator, but it collapsed, but about to stand it up again. Had an opportunity to pick up some used 24 volt panels for about 1/2 price. That’s how you can do, every little deed you do can help change the world.
Any little bit you can do.
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
Every time you plant a seed and it comes up and you’ve created life yourself right there. That’s what inspires me, especially if you make the seed and it grows and then you get seed from that, why you’re in business! It’s a blessing. Every plant you get is a blessing and when you grow your own vegetables at least you know who the farmer is.
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