The Lifetime Conservation Award

Steve Elliott and Luci Brieger - 2024

Steve and Luci
Steve and Luci

Over 40 years ago, Steve Elliott and Luci Brieger met at Lifeline Produce, a collectively owned farm near Victor, Montana. Young idealists of the era’s “back-to-the-land” movement, they embraced growing food through organic, soil-building farming practices and living in right relationship with the land. After a few years, most community members moved on. But Steve and Luci remained, running Lifeline Produce and transforming the operation into a successful livelihood while using ecologically based farming methods.

Luci and Steve pioneered commercial scale organic vegetable farming in Montana, mentored countless young people, and built the foundation for our local food movement. And they accomplished the nearly impossible: they built a livelihood based on suppling food to local markets from biodynamic regenerative farming, AND raised three children, paid off their land, bought more and permanently protected all.

Conservation can be understood as learning to work with the land, using it respectfully, and passing it on in good shape to the next generation. By embracing ecological diversity and reciprocity, Lifeline exemplifies conservation at its finest. They brew biodiesel for their trucks and tractors with used cooking oil from local restaurants. They capture solar power for their coolers, pumps, and home. They divide their farm into vegetable production land, hay ground, and perennial pasture, rotating these and using composted livestock manure to build soil health and close the nutrient cycle. They work with the land to provide a diversity of habitats, and the resulting biodiversity provides some natural pest control and disease suppression AND the music of birds and bees!  Each piece of this land organism plays its biological and economical role, working to support the life of the whole. In this organism, Steve and Luci are the mind and the will, guiding the living system.

Luci and Steve have not worked in isolation; they have been supporters and leaders of many organizations in Montana’s vibrant local food and sustainable agriculture movement. They helped create some of Montana’s first organic standards by helping form the Montana Sustainable Growers Union and creating the farmer-verified “Homegrown” label. Steve and Luci were also early and ongoing supporters of Garden City Harvest and the PEAS farm. Lifeline is a member of Western Montana Growers Cooperative, a nationally recognized, successful business run by and for its member-farmers. Lifeline Produce has been a showcase and inspiration for others, frequently hosting field days and tours for the interested public, drawing farmers and eaters from across the state.

Honoring the past and the future, they created the Lifeline Food Sovereignty Scholarship at UM to support Indigenous students interested in food sovereignty.

Through all of this and more, Steve and Luci’s lifelong success proves that such a life can be lived. Yet, they did not stop there. In early 2024, they donated a conservation easement on their 78-acres of farmland through the Bitter Root Land Trust. As they explained in a Missoulian article, “We wanted future farmers to have the opportunity to operate this farm someday and knew that meant we’d need to permanently lower the land’s value by removing development rights through the conservation easement.“

In an influential essay, Wendell Berry urged us to see the land as a functioning organism to which we belong. The land is only on loan, says Berry, and the ‘gift of good land’ comes with strings – responsibilities – attached. Luci and Steve embraced these responsibilities fully, through a lifetime of hard work and their unwavering commitment to the land and our community.

By Neva Hassanein and Vicki Watson

The Missoula Conservation Roundtable gratefully acknowledges generous contributions to our website design. Our logo was created by Kate Davis, Raptors of the Rockies; Brian Christianson contributed the photographs for page headers Brian Christianson Photography

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