Oil paints and tomatoes: David Graham creates art on the canvas and in the dirt
Not many would draw a correlation between painting fine art and growing tomatoes.
Even David Graham smiles when explaining how the vocation he has become well known for across the West – cowboy and Western artist–diversified last year to include his latest business – vegetable farming.
“There’s really not a huge connection, but they’re both something I love to do,” he said. “I started a vegetable gardening business during high school that helped fund my college education. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to try it on a grander scale.”
A native of Eastern Montana, Graham grew up in a family with deep roots in the western way of life on both his parents’ sides. He honed his self-taught craft of painting fine art while completing a degree in business management at Montana State University, and helping his father, Pat Graham, manage a large ranch near Terry, Mont. After several years of painting part-time and working part-time with his father, Graham moved to Billings, Mont., to focus solely on his art, and has made his living this way for nearly 10 years. His realistic paintings of cowboys, Native Americans, wildlife and the Old West hang in galleries in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Arizona.
But big city life didn’t provide the muse for the beauty he depicts on canvas.
“I’ve long had a desire to move to the country in order to gain more inspiration for my art. When the opportunity arose to move back home AND try my hand at large scale vegetable growing, I jumped at it.”
Those who know David Graham know he doesn’t just jump. He leaps all in – with thoughtful, meticulous planning – but all in, nevertheless. The detail he puts into the feathered headdresses and cotton candy Montana clouds in his paintings match the care he gives to laying out his 2-acre vegetable plot. The authenticity of the frosty breath flaring from a horse’s nostrils on the canvas of an early morning sunrise scene parallel the perfection of brimming baskets of colorful vegetables ready for sale. Even his farmers’ market display mirrors an art show exhibition, surpassing other simple tables of produce with a stamp that is mostly artist with a healthy dose of marketing savvy added in.
What David Graham does, he does well.
Hatchet Creek Farms is located on what was previously a sagebrush flat alongside an alfalfa field owned by his brother-in-law and sister, Will and Jennifer Nielsen, near Fallon, Mont. Inside a professional-grade deer fence Graham constructed with his father lies an intricate irrigation system that pumps water from a ditch and delivers it to row after row of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, beets, carrots, onions, flowers and numerous other crops. Last year he planted more than 2,000 tomato plants and over 1,000 pepper plants.
Graham also constructed a 14’ x 60’ greenhouse in the backyard where he grew his tomato crops during college. Now all his transplants are grown here, starting in March and April. By the end of May, Graham will have all the plants and additional seeds in the ground, with harvest beginning in July.
With plant numbers in the thousands that require full-time care during the production season, does Graham consider himself a large-scale gardener or a small-scale farmer?
“I think it’s a combination of both,” he said. “I consider it farming in the sense that I’m growing my vegetable crops with the intention of making a profit by selling them. But it looks more like gardening in the sense that I don’t use any large machinery in the process. All my crops are planted and harvested by hand, just as in a smaller home-sized garden.” He added that the term “market gardening” has become common among the farmers’ market growers to describe their unique scope of production.
In many ways the garden is a family affair, and a welcome project for a family that enjoys working together. Last year Graham’s mother, Lanette, helped transplant plants, harvest and attend markets. His brother-in-law helped with farming and leveling the plot, and even his 2-year-old nephew got in on carrying tomato plants. This year his sister hopes to contribute more given that her growing project from last summer, a baby girl, is now ready to get in on the action too.
“Our love of gardening and working together goes back to our large garden at our parents’ house,” said Jennifer Nielsen. “But now, the family venture has expanded. It has been a wonderful opportunity to teach our son, Landon, how vegetables are grown through lots of hard work. And what a little boy’s dream – digging and playing in the dirt and mud!”
With the help of family, Graham sells his produce at weekly farmers’ markets in nearby Miles City and Glendive. Additionally he has a small stand at the local convenience store in Terry, and markets direct from the farm.
“I’ve contemplated the idea of offering CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares,” said Graham, “where customers pay a flat fee up front for the whole season, then they are supplied with a weekly variety of fresh produce throughout the entire 2- or 3-month growing season.”
He is also considering expanding his pumpkin patch to open up to the community a “pick-your-own experience,” and would like to drive more on-farm sales.
Graham says one of the biggest learning curves of his first year included figuring out which crops and varieties he wanted to grow again and which could maybe be dropped off of the roster. “I grew so many different varieties of tomatoes and peppers, for instance, that it was a great opportunity to rate how well each one did.” With the business acumen of a farmer who wrote a complete strategic plan with detailed financing, budgets and projections before launching this venture, he adds, “This coming summer, I will be concentrating exclusively on the ones that performed the best last year, which should make production increase and make better use of my space.”
He adds the second year will hopefully be less stressful without the challenges of construction and infrastructure and other start-up hiccups, and he will have more time to dedicate to his primary vocation.
Admirers of Grahams’ artwork who may have worried the spade has replaced the paintbrush can rest assured that Graham is still first and foremost an artist. “Last summer was difficult for my painting, since the farm required so much time and energy to get it up and going. I’m looking forward to finding more time to create art this year.”
Whether the reds, yellows, greens and purples are peeping through the soil, or found in the smear of oil on his artists’ palette, Graham has a passion for creating beauty and sharing it with others.
“I find it extremely rewarding to be able to grow and sell a quality food product such as freshly grown veggies, and then to hear from my customers how much they enjoy it. It’s much like creating a painting, and having the satisfaction of knowing that someone is displaying it in their home years later. It’s very humbling.”
With a fan base that stretches across the region and nation, his biggest supporters still live just across the road.
“We are so proud of him, and his endless list of talents never ceases to amaze me,” said Nielsen. “But, when I think about it, I’m not at all surprised he loves gardening. The similarities to painting are actually so evident. The ground is his canvas; he starts from scratch with something completely bare, and slowly … with time, the plants and produce complete his ‘painting.’”
If you step back and sees the easel and the dirt as one, the colors and the detail in Graham’s diverse work, maybe you’ll agree art and farming really aren’t that different after all.