Alumnus Takes Faith Journey to Create Bear Canyon Farm

November 07, 2019 | Education | Jeni Schmidt

You might say it all started with an accident.

Eric Harris, a 2003 graduate of Mount Ellis Academy (Bozeman, Mont.) and a board member since 2013, had a lot of time to think while sitting on his couch recovering from crushing his foot between a fully loaded trailer and a hitch. Researching water rights for his own property, he became curious about the academy's water rights. He found that Mount Ellis Academy (MEA) had great water rights to irrigate all of the property. Harris began envisioning a large-scale commercial farming enterprise to financially help MEA.

Around that time Merlin Knowles, former Montana Conference president and Mount Ellis Academy board chairman, challenged his board members to read Ellen White's counsel. While reading White’s words and her vision for agriculture in Adventist schools, Harris' conviction grew stronger. White wrote, “It is God’s plan that agriculture shall be connected with the work in our sanitariums and schools. Our youth need the education to be gained from this line of work” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 228). Harris was certain MEA needed an agricultural program.

Having recently graduated from Walla Walla University, Harris and his wife, Katie, were living in Fairfield, Mont., making a go at farming and nursing, respectively. Living on Katie’s earnings from nursing, they purchased land from Eric’s family and reinvested all profits back into the farm until they were operating loan-free — a rare occurrence for beginning farmers. They were considering expanding their operation, but God had other plans in mind.

That was around the time of the accident.

As Katie explains, “Eric was consumed with the idea. Abnormally consumed.” Unable to sleep or waking in the night, he couldn’t get the idea of an agricultural program at MEA out of his mind. He believed he could help the school along the path to commercial farming. After crunching the numbers, a lot of prayer and Katie’s encouragement, he proposed a plan to the school board. As he remembers, he was “shot down immediately.”

The Harrises were not deterred. “We knew that if God wanted agriculture, He would make it possible.” To Katie, it was out of character for Eric to think about something daily for months on end. “It was so clear to me that God really wanted him to act on the thoughts that were consuming him," she says.

It was important to Katie and Eric that the garden endeavor be linked to Mount Ellis Academy and Mount Ellis Elementary. After further research, Katie learned time spent in a garden helps improve academic performance. Eric learned the importance of small-scale, high-intensity crops to give more students hands-on experience with agriculture — in essence, to obtain the “education to be gained by this line of work” that White was talking about. They brought their new plan back to the school board and came away with a five-year, five-acre lease. Their work had just begun. 

Their original thinking was to volunteer for two to three years, setting everything up — the farm, greenhouses, a farmhouse, planting, working with the school — and then find a “qualified” farm manager to take over once the farm was generating sufficient income to support one. But if that farm manager doesn’t materialize, they are prepared to stay longer: “It’s not that we don’t want to be here; it just wasn’t a part of our original plan. We know God wants us here now. We’re here until He brings someone better suited to replace us, in His time.”

Students working on the farm have built fences, planted and harvested crops, and even helped sell some produce. But that is only part of the vision. Eric and Katie don’t just want students working on the farm; they want them learning on the farm. Last year, Seth Ellis, MEA math teacher, brought his students to the garden, where they calculated the plastic needed to cover the end walls of the newly erected hoophouses. According to Ellis, because the field wasn’t level, it quickly became a “real-world problem, more challenging and messy than a book problem.” This fall, the home economics class learned about food preservation, Brix tests and garden planning.

If you visit Bear Canyon Farm on any given day, you will find Katie, Eric and their two children, Elika and Colter, planting, pruning, weeding and harvesting the fruits of their labors. When they are not working on the market garden, they are “home” in Fairfield, managing their ranch and the production of hay and cattle. And when they are busy in Bozeman, Eric’s parents, Keith (a 1968 MEA graduate) and Gayle, help make the dream possible by taking care of the cattle in Fairfield.

Eric and Katie’s dedication to MEA and their vision is palpable. They are certain God wanted an agriculture endeavor at MEA, and they know without a doubt this is God’s leading. Eric explains, “God calls us to be unselfish. He prompts us to move forward in faith, despite what we may want, even if He is calling us out of our comfort zone. When I understood that, I felt confident that God was calling us to create a farm at Mount Ellis Academy. After all, God planted the first garden, and I believe He wants us to enjoy a piece of that experience.”