Idaho Business Review
By Paul Hosefros and Roxanne Gail Beach

The pioneer spirit of the Oregon Trail across Idaho seems well and alive in the organic farming efforts of Treasure Valley.

“I wouldn’t call us pioneers,” said Doreen Guenther, a partner in running the Hidden Springs Community Farm, “but we’re some of the first on the trail the pioneers blazed,” and “we’re still cutting edge.”

That cutting-edge approach emphasizing not only chemical-free food but the benefits of locally grown meats and produce, is growing in importance throughout the state. With a greater concern about food-borne illnesses, nutritional imperatives and transportation costs, supermarkets, restaurant chefs and shoppers are turning increasingly to “organic.”

At the Idaho Department of Agriculture, Margaret Meissner is the organic program manager and has eight inspectors throughout the state who are responsible for verifying compliance.

In addition to livestock and crops, handlers and processors are covered in the program. Accurate labeling is also an aspect her department monitors.

“Since 2002,” she said, “there’s been a steady increase in acres, and a lot for wild cropping, such as mushroom picking, on BLM and Forest Service land that can show they haven’t been sprayed for three years. There’s also been a steady increase in income. Last year was greater than $10 million and we expect this year to be somewhat higher.”

According to a USDA chart, Idaho’s organic acreage is holding steady at about 100,000 acres, but since 2003 there has been about 10 percent to 20 percent annual growth. Meissner commented that there clearly is “increasing consumer demand” at both supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

Labeling, however, is one area that has caused some complications. Tim Kramer, produce manager for Paul’s Market in McCall, cited an example of federal and state in apparent conflict over Idaho local stores’ labeling. “Initially, all of my organic produce vendors were certified by the Feds, then one day the state came in and told me I would have to pull everything from my organic section that wasn’t also certified by the state of Idaho,” he said. “I had to contact all of my vendors and have them fill out the paperwork to be organic certified in Idaho.”

But the implementation of higher growing standards is quite recent. According to the Organic Trade Association, it was only in 1990 that Congress passed The Organic Foods Production Act as Title XXI as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. It authorized formation of the National Organic Program within the USDA to establish organic standards and to require and oversee mandatory certification of organic production. These are administered by states and private organizations.

But, it wasn’t until seven years later that the USDA actually published a draft of the first proposed rule for implementing organic standards. First public comment ended in April 1998, and revisions were made on three issues – irradiation, genetically modified organisms, and sewage sludge. In the Fall of that year, comments were sought on livestock confinement, use of antibiotics and parasiticides and certifiers’ authority to decertify.

A final rule was published December 2000, but rule implementation took another 18 months until October 2002.

Considerable patience, expense and effort challenge the grower who wants to be Certified Organic. Regard-less, Willis Spiker, a 24- year-old, fourth-generation cattle rancher in Ola , decided to “go organic” for a very basic reason. He said, it makes more money. The key to sustainable is the need to be profitable. “Bankers won’t finance you otherwise.”

Bouncing on his ATV down of his pastures that seem to cling to slopes overlooking the Little Willow Creek in the Ola Valley, where his Hereford-Angus Cross cows graze, he adds an important, impassioned corollary to the profit motive: “I wanted to produce wholesome food, not junk.”

That passion to produce wholesome food pervades the sector and may account for its increasing popularity. Spiker observed that “over the last three years, the demand for organic produce, meats grains has increased about 20 percent.”

That fervor was the wellspring of motivation for Jennifer Harrington, co-operator in their first year at Hidden Springs with Guenther.

“Both of us are passionate about home gardens that are increasingly organic. Last year I started a community garden.” They hadn’t experienced any entrepreneurial antagonism, said Harrington, who grew up on farm in Palouse country of eastern Washington. But it may be, she said, that traditional farms feel threatened. Guenther remarked that “conventional farming was easier because of machinery, but which in row cultivation tended “to create a compacted layer.” She said they would “rework” their acreage “because of a wet spring.” and “eventually we’ll plant closer for water, insect control, and deeper growth.”

As she pulled weeds from around new potatoes under a hot summer sun, she wryly observed that “weeds are better competitors.” Growers have to stay ahead.

Getting ahead of legislative matters took some effort as well. By 1988, the Idaho Organic Producers Organization had begun, and that generated a sense of excitement. Tim Sommer, owner of Purple Sage Farm in Middleton was among the forefront of those actively seeking organic legislation, and he feels the state agriculture department has been wonderful. He, in turn, influenced Bill and Connie Ward of Granny’s Farm in Meridian.

During an interview in their dining room the Wards looked back over their years as organic farmers.
“We were No. 164 to be organically certified, about 1995,” Connie said. “Until last year, we grew and sold to the restaurants and farm markets. Last year we retired; we still sell at farm markets,” such as the one held Saturdays in Boise, “but only, lettuce, beets, early greens, that kind of thing.” It is now common to see long lines of shoppers at the various organic fruit and vegetable stands right after the market opens.

“We started because of health issues,” Connie said, of her husband Bill who had a heart attack. “So, we started using herbs from Snohomish, near Seattle, in the late 1980s. There wasn’t much in the way of herbs at the time in Idaho.”

Bill said, after the heart attack, he had to learn to cook differently, and this precipitated an interest in herbs, and natural growing.

Having the land, the motivation, and the leadership enabled the Wards at a pivotal moment to move to organic farming. Also, a group of growers came together in the valley. There was not so much consumer interest at the time as there was in restaurants, who bought a lot, and the Boise Co-op, he said.

Connie said, “We had to do a lot of educating … Against produce houses who had volume and ease of delivery. We couldn’t do that. But a plus for us, was that we had an organic product and negligible spoilage factor,” since the produce was not brought in from out of state. Our tomatoes are not picked green. As for restaurants – you’d be dependent on the head chef. If they moved, you had to start all over again.” But today chefs are much more responsive to organic, but as organic gets bigger, farms get bigger and tend to lose quality control.

So, who does the certifying?

The cost of getting certified is partly dependent upon gross sales. A grower needs organic seed, or if that is not available , other untreated seed. There is also a need more expensive potting soil, cleaning agents and so on.

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