By Maggie Harris and Ben Weaver
Melanie Montgomery and her husband, Steve, run Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, Ohio. The agricultural ministry sits about 8.5 miles northwest of the East Palestine train derailment site. Despite the distance and the direction, their farm market business saw a drop off since the accident.
The farm raises Devon cattle and sells grass fed beef, chickens and turkeys, eggs, pork and sometimes lamb. On Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., they open a niche market of “whole, healthy foods,” where vendors sell products like micro greens. In the summer, the farm sells vegetables from its permaculture garden, honey and breads, among other items.
NewsLab talked with Montgomery March 8 about her concerns for the future and how the derailment is affecting her business. The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Can you tell us about Lamppost Farm?
“We’re a nonprofit organization, and we leased this land. It’s about 130 acres. We’ve been doing it for 15 years, and I’m the director of ministry and education. We came from campus ministry, and so our heart was to start a farm that we could do education and ministry on. So the context of what we do is ministry and education. The economic generator is primarily grass fed meats.
So we do have the ability to raise funds. People don’t necessarily see a farm as a place that they want to give their donations to. Farming typically is you earn it, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you work hard, sunup to sundown, and you earn your pay. What we’re trying to do is sustain ourselves to be able to do education and ministry.
So when East Palestine happened, initially, for sure, our hearts were, you know, we were asking what can we do to help? What we’re best at is relationships, education, farming. So that’s not really the best place to plug in right now. They’re in survival mode.
What we didn’t expect is that, in the process, people would be concerned about the farmland, about all the products and particularly meat, because of the word ‘dioxins.’
We’re not chemists, so we don’t understand, you know, necessarily, what that means long term, how it works, how it travels. But what we do know is how often it’s in the media about the dangers of the toxins in your meat and dairy. So I think it shocked us. It took us a little bit sideways.”
A journey toward healthful food
“Obviously, we do regenerative farming and sustainable farming. We started at this context, doing this kind of farming, because of a history of cancer in our families. That was purely the catalyst, we started researching how cancer affects us and you know, our food and the food system and the environment and toxins and that’s literally what took us on this journey.
So we understand enough to know, we are literally doing this to combat toxin. What we don’t know is the science behind it. So in the last few weeks we were surprised at the response. But I don’t blame anyone, it’s understandable.
The last thing we would want to do is to proliferate toxins. But being a nonprofit, we also don’t have a lot of money, you know, expendable money to do a lot of testing and to assure people scientifically with data.
I don’t know if you’ve looked into it, but to test for dioxins, you can put one product through a test and it costs $900, and they have to destroy the equipment afterwards.
So this is all stuff we found out in the last few weeks.”
Figuring out the volatile chemical testing landscape
“Water and soil are not nearly as expensive to test. But the research that we’re doing, we’re finding everybody around here who wants to be assured, is doing a VOC panel, volatile organic compounds.
That makes perfect sense unless you don’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. And so we could do a VOC panel in our soil and our water, but to me, we don’t know enough to just say, ‘Yeah, throw in 100 volatile organic compounds in that test and and let us know if it’s safe.’
So we’re in a little bit of a pickle trying to figure out what exactly are we testing for because of the way the tests are done, you have to know what you’re asking for. And we’re in a bit of a pickle financially, we had a little bit of cushion until the sales started dropping. So now we’re asking a lot bigger questions.
Where are the first expenses we can cut? And how do we assure customers about our desire for safety without being able to necessarily know exactly how to show safety or improve safety? We have some loyal customers who say, ‘You know what, it’s probably better to buy from you regardless, than to go shop online or run to Giant Eagle. But I think the majority of our customers who buy from us from a fear-based perspective in the first place—they want healthy food because they don’t want to get sick. I don’t blame them. That’s why we started.
But when you’re dealing with that as your motive, then I don’t think there’s much we can do to change their fears, particularly because the media in general is really pushing those fears.
One thing that we are trying to figure out how to navigate in and research is ‘How do we show a potential difference in the resilience of our land, compared to our neighbors?’
First of all, there’s all kinds of issues: We’re eight and a half miles away, we are upstream. We are for the most part, we were out of the wind, most of it went northeast. Some of it though, you can find a few graphs and things show that some of it may have drifted this direction at some point.
And by it, I have no idea what I’m talking about. But what if we could test our land’s resilience to toxins compared to a neighbor’s land? You know, as opposed to our land compared to East Palestine, or because there’s so many issues at play, you can’t just talk about toxins as an inert thing hitting land or people as inert things you know. The terrain that it lands on should matter.
And that’s basically our mission, is to help people understand the terrain matters. So really, that’s the direction we’re trying to head, trying to find outlets who want to maybe take it on as a case study or…I don’t know, we, again, we’re not chemists, we don’t know many programs like that.
And, and it’s really tough to stop everything you’re already doing, especially when you’re feeling a little bit in a scarcity mindset to begin with, to just focus on researching environmental labs, and programs that might want to run a case study like this, or something like that. We don’t want the perception to be that we’re desperate.
We’re all perfectly content. There’s 11 staff and four kids and you know, 16 animals on this property and we are all perfectly content to stay put and trust the process and the land and its resilience, our health our immune systems. So we are content.
But we’re moving in a direction of trying to make the best choices for public communication, as well as long-term education. I want this to help empower people to understand the ecology of life, not just how to avoid the toxins or not.
Are you eligible to get help through the EPA or the state?
To be transparent, we have filed Lamppost Farm—I don’t know if we actually signed it yet, but we have filed with Morgan and Morgan. The hope being that that’s sort of an insurance policy, if worse comes to worse, we all need to find other jobs somewhere, then at least there might be some compensation in the end, if they can prove the connection. As far as immediate help, we started a GoFundMe. So that’s really all that we have coming in to help, which is nice in the way that we’re very grassroots to begin with, we’re very rooted in the community. If there are people in the community that want to see us get through this, then they will give and if it’s not something on people’s hearts, then they won’t give and that will tell us what direction to go next.
We have an Airbnb on our site here and we’ve had multiple guests asking, like, ‘Are you sure I can shower?’ I had someone ask, is it safe? And I said, we believe it is. Here’s what we know. And then they didn’t book, you know, so on all fronts we’re close enough that people are concerned to be on the property and do anything. But we’re far enough that there’s so many other concerns closer to ground zero.
You mentioned people will come in groups. What do you show them?
We’re a Christian organization. Our goal, our mission is to reach and teach through agriculture. So behind the curtain what that means is we want to open peoples’ eyes to the big picture, the world view of a creator and design, you know. We want them to question their relationship with the creator, with the creation, with each other and with themselves. And I think in agriculture, it, you know, the context is endless in terms of the opportunities to see those, ask those bigger questions and to come to some conclusions.
So, for us, that’s always our goal. We facilitate different things for different groups. But we always want them to ask those bigger questions before they leave.
And honestly, the rubber meets the road in a situation like this, because it takes just as much faith to be afraid—you can’t see toxins. Nobody’s trusting the EPA, or the media or the government anyways, like, it takes faith to be afraid. But it also takes faith to believe and to trust and to keep moving forward in your core beliefs. And in changing your behavior.
The problem is, it’s really difficult to get that language across without offense. Because it sounds like you’re negating their fears, you’re not having compassion, you’re not accepting their situation. And the last thing we want to do as a Christian organization is to come across as not having compassion.
How are you adapting to the situation?
As far as expenses, to be honest, you know, you can’t cut your electricity, you can’t cut your overheads. So our retirement will be the first thing that we cut, which isn’t the end of the world, right? But then it may be that we have to cut back on some of our employee pay. There’s not a lot of room, I mean, we live pretty tightly as it is. None of us are making a lot of money. We just built this home, so can’t cut back on the mortgage.
One thing we’re still considering, middle of March, so in less than two weeks now, we need to decide whether we’re going to keep the first group of chicks that we get for the coming spring. I don’t know that we’re 100% decided about that. But that’ll be you know, that’ll cut the expense of the feed that they’ll need and the expense of the chicks.
And it’s just a short-term strategy—then we will have to address the long term in terms of our budgeted income, but it might be a good place to start.