Feb 26, 2023

After escaping 'religious cult', Montana woman faces new challenges with honeyberry farm

David Erickson 
February 22, 2023
CORVALLIS — Melissa Allred is out to set examples with her life story, but it hasn't been easy.

First and foremost, she's out to prove she's a successful agricultural entrepreneur who can overcome obstacles and severe setbacks. She wants to be a leader in demonstrating that honeyberries can be a viable commercial  crop in Montana. Also called haskap, honeyberries are a sweet, juicy fruit that, although native to North America, haven't been cultivated on a wide scale in Montana.

Second, and more importantly, Allred wants to prove that women who come from psychologically abusive situations can find freedom.

Allred, who escaped from what she calls a "polygamist religious cult" that she was born into — where she was groomed to marry into a plural marriage and submit to her husband and the church — now owns and operates the largest honeyberry farm in Montana.

On her 5-acre plot of land near Corvallis, she's set out to pioneer the best ways to grow the crop while proving that her past doesn't define who she is. She was always made to feel weak and inferior so she wouldn't think about leaving. But building her farm from the ground up and overcoming all the doubt in her mind has changed her perspective.

“I’m a totally different person now," Allred said. "I’m smart. I’m funny. I’m a go-getter. I can do a challenge. I’m reclaiming my whole identity of who I am. I’m rebuilding my life."

After 19 years in a situation that she described as "intolerable," Allred finally broke free. It wasn't easy, because she didn't have many legal assets or rights. She also had her children to take care of. But she knew one thing that gave her solace all those years.

"My garden was my safe space," she said.

So, she planted her first honeyberry bush in 2019 and broke free in 2020.

She took classes at the Montana State University Ravalli County Extension office and ordered thousands of honeyberry plants from Canada. She secured financing through a no-interest Kiva loan from the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula and a state Growth Through Ag grant. She registered her business in her name, and her name only. She built a network of friends who helped her along the way. And she set out on her own.

Max Smith, the co-owner of WinterKissed Farm near Stevensville, knows Allred because the farming community in the Bitterroot is like a close-knit family.

"She's just really tenacious," Smith said. "She's very brave, especially regarding the situation, the community that's she's from. She seems like she doesn't want to affect the community around her in a negative way. She wants to go about having this business and creating a good environment for her kids."

Smith said it's incredibly inspiring to see someone build a successful farm without a background in agriculture.

"It's next to impossible," he said. "You don't see a lot of farms in general starting up. There's just so many prohibitive things about starting a farm, the land being one of the biggest. Developing all the skills to grow a crop and do it commercially as well. It's always hard to start a farm and make a living and she has a knack for it."

Now, Allred has 5,000 honeyberry bushes, along with raspberries, strawberries and currants. It's called Aspen Grove Farm, and they sell at local markets, offer "u-pick" sales and make jams.

"I’m trying to accomplish starting in my 40s what other people started to do in their 20s and I’m really proud of the fact that in four short years I built what I did," she said. "It wasn’t by myself. I had help from the community and people rallied around me by the grace of God.”


But disaster struck late last summer. A malfunction with her giant freezer on the farm led to the loss of $70,000 worth of honeyberries she and her employees had painstakingly cared for the entire spring and summer.

"As such a young farmer, I am unable to absorb such an overwhelming loss, and I lost a large portion of my savings for my family trying to keep things from going under," she described on the GoFundMe. "I am a single mother of eight stepping out as a female farmer by being brave enough to bring a new fruit into the marketplace, and I am showing other women how to be brave and succeed after abuse. What will they see if the farm goes down? How do I now support my family?"

Allred's eyes fill with tears when she describes "juice pouring out the bottom of the freezer door" and having to haul boxes to the dump.

"I had a complete emotional breakdown," she recalled. "It was severely traumatic for me. Not just the financial loss and stress and all that. But also that this was my freedom. And it’s the only thing I have. So there was trauma and that reality."

Allred had worked hard to secure financial independence for herself and her children. This disaster destroyed all of that. Honeyberries are considered a specialty crop by the government, so she wasn't able to get crop insurance in time for the season. She felt all her hopes and accomplishments rotting away in that freezer along with her precious berries. 

"And on top of that it brought back all that past trauma," she recalled, noting that her whole life she had always been made to feel like she couldn't do anything on her own. "‘Like, you can’t do it without me. You’re not smart enough. You’re too stupid.' You know, the things that have been fed into my mind. The belittling that had always occurred. So it hit pretty hard."

Allred said she had some very close friends who took over the farm for a few months while she sought therapy. Her friends set up a GoFundMe to try to replace the lost income, because she still has loans that she needs to pay off.

Control and abuse

"I was raised and groomed to be exactly what they wanted me to be and never knew there was anything else to consider," she wrote on her GoFundMe page. "My role was to be a good 'sisterwife' and mother to many. My husband was my 'head' or ruler, and my children and I were subjected to narcissistic control and abuse. Women are basically the property of their husbands, although this term would never be used. Rather we were under their priesthood power."

Allred was all on her own when she first started the business. When she left the church and her situation, she was facing something that many women in that situation face.

“They pretty much design it so that you will end up with nothing if you try to leave," she explained. "Everything’s owned by the church. Especially for women, it’s designed to put you at the bottom of the barrel if you try to leave. And you’re shunned."

So when someone leaves, they leave everything.

"Your whole world, everybody you’ve ever known, associated with, your family, your church, your work," she said. "Everything’s all within. It’s not like just moving to a different state. So you have to create your own identity and as a woman you own nothing."

Even learning a new career was discouraged. She had jobs cleaning houses, but how the paychecks were spent was not her decision, she said.

“I didn’t have permission because it’s a very male-dominant cult," she explained. "You’re subjected to him. He’s your head. Everything you do is by his permission. They may be as lenient as they think they are but in all honesty, you have nothing without them."

She didn't have any ownership of the house or the car.

"You have nothing, and that’s used as a power tool to keep us. That’s one of the hardest things.

"I was still married and I thought I had to stay at the time," she recalled. "But I knew that I needed to do something and have control over some way to take care of my family. When everything is contingent on somebody else, it’s under their control.”

Starting from nothing

Allred doesn't have a college degree. She doesn't have a background in agriculture. But she's a voracious reader and she's willing to learn from other people and to experiment with new techniques.

Smith said he's been impressed with the fact that Allred hires a lot of local women.

"I think there aren't too many farms that are as ambitious as the one she's put forth," Smith said. "Most farms are direct-to-customer, small-scale and trying to get the top dollar they can. She seems to have developed a business that's geared toward lower margins and feeding as many people as she can and putting as many people to work as possible. That's incredible and unique in our food system." 

Allred said she's hoping that she'll learn all the right things, and wrong things, that come with growing honeyberries, in order to show others it can be done. She's already learned how to harvest up to 4 pounds of large, succulent berries off of every bush. 

There's no blueprint for creating a whole new life after over four decades.

"And it’s scary because you have actually no legal right to anything, and they know it," Allred said. "You’re not a legal wife so you don’t have any rights. But my story shows it’s possible."

Allred is determined to come up with the money to save her farm, and not just for herself and her children. It's because she wants to prove that it's possible.

Her message to other women in that situation is one of empowerment.

“You can get out," she said. "There is a way and I want them to see that. There is a way. I’m not sitting in a cardboard box. I’m not going to stay in a trailer on food stamps. I’m gonna be an entrepreneur. I’m going to be a businesswoman and I’m going to show that I can do something."

She also wants her children to see what's possible in life.

"I can create something and I can send my children to college," Allred said. "And they’re going to have life experiences that would have been denied to them. That’s what they’re going to see."

For her, the farm is freedom from oppression, and she's showing that to others in her community.

"They’re going to see what free looks like," she said. "Because in this country where we tout freedom, there are people who are not free. This is what getting free looks like. That’s what I want them to see. When they see me they see that I’m free. I have the American dream. It’s not easy, for heaven’s sake. But I have the right to freedom.”

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