By Martin Kidston

Missoula County administrators and members of a local nonprofit interested in leasing an historic Missoula Valley ranch continue to negotiate a lease agreement, with both sides describing the progress as productive.

Chris Lounsbury, the county's chief operating officer, and Mark Estep of Freedom Gardens, said the two sides have talked through several issues relating to a potential lease of the LaLonde Ranch, where the nonprofit looks to launch a community garden and education center.

“We had a constructive meeting and laid out what everyone was interested in getting on the table,” Estep said Thursday. “We're making progress.”

Freedom Gardens has proposed turning the historic 1870s ranch back to agriculture, a vision that includes 150 fruit trees, an aquaponics system and terraced garden plots capable of producing 14,000 pounds of food in 58 varieties.

Members of the nonprofit approached the county earlier this month asking to lease several ranch buildings and 7 acres of land to carry out their vision. Missoula County commissioners tentatively agreed, though a lease must forged and tenants within the Development Park where the ranch is located must sign on.

Freedom Gardens has won the endorsement of at least one future neighbor. Neal Leathers from Big Sky Brewing Co. said he liked the organization's plans and called it a good fit for the district.

“We're really hoping this project can come to fruition the way it's designed,” said Leathers. “The idea of having fruit trees as the surrounding barrier is great. The entire project sounds like the use we've been looking for.”

While the idea sounded enticing, Frenchie Leiritz, the production manager at the Missoula Winery - which also serves as a neighbor to the proposed operation - has asked for more information.

“We didn't know about this until a few weeks ago,” she said. “We're really next to each other. I would like to know how we can work together – all those things.”

If a lease can be agreed to, Freedom Gardens believes it can increase production and market its produce through the Farmers Market, as well as additional sales at produce stands. It also plans to wholesale its items to local restaurants and CSA shares.

The nonprofit plans to open and rent a kitchen as well, enabling entrepreneurs to create value-added products. In additional to growing food, it would also launch an educational component, offering classes on everything from worm composting to soil testing and tree grafting.

“It's a great piece of property,” Leathers said. “Having it go to a use like this would be a good deal for the Development Park.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at