Gillette man starts urban farm in response to pandemic

Matt Walker stands between rows of flourishing tomato plants at one of his urban farm locations behind Gillette College Wednesday. Walker's vision is to grow a slew of vegetables at his various plots to be used in local schools and restaurants. (Photo by Mike Moore, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — It was a slightly windy Wednesday afternoon as Matt Walker walked through a field next to Westwood High School, making his way through rows of vegetables.

He pointed out the watermelon and beets he’d planted earlier this year breaking through the ground.

He bent down and dug his fingers into the soil. It was dry on top, but when he pulled his hand out, his fingertips were covered in damp dirt, proof of his working drip irrigation system.

He walked past rows vegetables, including peas, peppers, corn and tomatoes, each one marked with signs.

The plants already are weathered veterans when it comes to the northeast Wyoming climate, having been through one hailstorm as well as a severe windstorm.

“This wind has just been terrible, so we’re pretty lucky we even got some of the action we do,” Walker said.

A couple of rows over, he ran his hands over the leaves of a tomato plant.

“These have been beat pretty good, but actually they’re pretty hardy,” he said.

When the vegetables are ready to harvest, Walker hopes to sell them to the Campbell County School District through its Farm to School program. Each year, the USDA administers grants to help schools increase students’ access to locally grown food.

“What we’ll do is bring them in, clean them up, chop them, bag them, send them over there in portions they’re comfortable using,” he said.

This is just one of four plots of land around Gillette that Walker has turned into farmland to provide the community — from school kids to senior citizens to restaurants — with locally grown fruits and vegetables.

It all came about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. When life handed Walker lemons, instead of making lemonade, he planted urban farms.

Walker owns Walker Inspection, which does work in the oil field. But with the future of the oil industry uncertain, he started Equality State Farms LLC with his neighbor, Casey Pinkerton.

“I had a lot of guys working for me that are fixing to get unemployed unless I get something else cooking,” he said.

He saw the effects of the pandemic and the frustration “of how quickly your world can get turned upside down,” Walker said. As the economy began shutting down, Gillette’s supply chain was disrupted, which led to empty shelves at grocery stores.

Dana Miller Eiland, CEO of Sign Boss, helped Walker brainstorm ideas.

“He said, ‘What is it that we get shipped in here every day that we could do ourselves?’ He was talking about paper cups,” Miller Eiland said.

“I went through a lot of weird phases. Vegetables kind of caught,” Walker said.

The idea process took a lot of turns before he settled on urban farms.

He initially thought about manufacturing, then his thoughts turned to canning. He’s canned his own vegetables for the last 10 years and wondered if he could start his own canning operation. That thought then evolved into growing food locally.

He’s been around gardens his entire life. His grandmother ran greenhouses for 40 years and his mother was into gardening as well. When he bought his first house in 2006, he started his own garden and eventually had his own greenhouse.

He’d always enjoyed the outdoors, but doing a commercial farm never crossed his mind until this year.

He sat in on some Zoom calls hosted by Energy Capital Economic Development that were designed to help business owners get through the pandemic. The more he listened, the more he realized that his crazy idea wasn’t so crazy after all.

“It got pretty important in a hurry, like holy cow, we can make some of these moves,” Walker said.

He saw vacant lots around town and thought he could turn them into gardens. Besides making them productive pieces of land, he also could improve the look.

He said if he’d been turned down, he would have approached it from a different angle.

“But everyone said yes,” Miller Eiland said.

“Almost crazy instantly,” Walker said.

He had very little trouble getting the urban farms going, and he’s had a lot of cooperation from Campbell County, city of Gillette and Gillette College.

“I’ve worked in the oil field a long time, so I’m no stranger to just getting after it. That was easy to me,” he said. “Just coming right out and saying what you want to do. No beating around the bush. I was like, ‘I’m going to farm this plot right here. I need the guy who needs to know to know.’”

On Lakeway Road next to Expresso Lube, Walker has planted pumpkins. Behind Westwood High School, he hopes to work with the Campbell County School District to provide students with locally grown fruits and vegetables.

And on the corner of Sixth Street and 4J Road, the location of the old Westwood school, he’s started on another urban farm. The county commissioners wanted the property for the potential expansion of services for senior citizens. But with nothing planned for the near future, they had no problem with Walker putting in a farm there, as long as seniors see some benefit.

They also appreciate the plan as a beautification project.

“This lot has been hideous,” Miller Eiland said.

It was vacant for years. The old school building was demolished a couple of years ago and has sat empty since. Now, its look has improved quite a bit.

“When I’m done with this, you’re going to want a drone shot,” Walker said.

Last week, the commissioners approved a three-year urban farming lease agreement with Walker for the property. He’ll keep up the maintenance of the land, and he has a reclamation plan in place.

As part of the lease agreement, Walker will have three plots on the property dedicated to vegetables for the Senior Center. He’ll plant a variety of vegetables, including carrots, radishes, lettuce, beans, peas and peppers. He’ll do all of the gardening and provide vegetables to the Senior Center free of charge.

And the plots will be designed so that seniors can come and pick produce when it’s ready to be harvested. It will be accessible by those in wheelchairs and walkers.

“This year it’ll be a little rough,” he said. “Over the next few years, it’s really going to grow some character and mature.”

Commissioner Colleen Faber, who’s helped Walker with the soil composition among other environmental issues regarding the project, said food security is going to continue to be an issue in light of the pandemic and economic downturn.

When doing research on the project, Walker couldn’t find many examples of urban farms in this part of the country. They’re more common in big cities, and besides some places in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain region doesn’t have many.

As most people in Gillette know, Wyoming’s weather isn’t very cooperative. From the short growing season to the strong winds to the seemingly random snowstorms and hailstorms, planting is a risky activity.

“Even now, we were in June before the soil got warm enough to germinate,” Walker said.

But it’s possible, he said. It just takes a lot of hard work.

“People don’t understand you can grow great vegetables in Wyoming,” Faber said.

“A lot of people do grow their own stuff, but as far as our restaurants and things, there’s nobody growing it,” Walker said.

He already has heard from two local restaurants who are interested in buying his produce once it’s harvested.

He has a small crew of friends and family who help him now, and when harvest time comes he hopes to gather up some volunteers.

“Some of us work on it for no money, some work on it for a little. I pay everybody out of my pocket right now,” he said.

Walker has bigger plans than just becoming an urban farmer. He’s renting the old Skyline Grille building south of town, and he hopes to turn it into an assembly house for canning and processing vegetables.

“Good products don’t look good. Ugly tomatoes, those aren’t the ones you sell to people to slice up and put on a sandwich,” he said.

He’ll take that produce and turn it into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and other products.

Miller Eiland said Walker has done a lot of work in other states with the oil industry. With Equality State Farms, he just wants to give back to his community.

Walker isn’t interested in shipping produce out of the state. He wants to keep the operation as local as possible.

“I could grow enough for this state and be content. Even this city,” he said.

He’s continuing to brainstorm.

“I’ve got a lot of ideas, I just probably won’t get to them all this year,” he said.

His craziest idea so far is having an outdoor dining event where people can eat salad made from vegetables that were picked out of the ground just half an hour before. It would be paired with local meat that would be cooked right there.

But for now, “as long as I can grow some vegetables I’ll be happy,” he said.

When faced with a crisis, “you have a choice,” Miller Eiland said. “You can sit and wait and do nothing, or you can decide your own destiny.”

Walker chose to create his own path. The foundation has been set. The permitting, the construction of the farms and the planting have all been done.

“Now, we wait,” he said.