If Weather Were All That Mattered

January 7, 2011

A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio

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Citrus trees in Merrily Eckel's geothermal greenhouse in Hagerman

HAGERMAN: Deep into another Idaho winter, I can’t help but think back on a battered greenhouse in an icy Hagerman field that I stumbled toward some three years ago.  From the outside, that greenhouse all but faded into a snow-flecked sky.  But as soon as owner Merrily Eckel pushed open its creaky door, an unmistakable, if utterly incongruous scent hit me like a blast of sunlight.  In front of us stood a full grown orange tree, heavy with fruit.

“Anything you could grow from Baja north, you can grow in here” Eckle’s said through a half-contained smile (I’m sure she never grows tired of the the look on peoples’ faces when they walk through that door).  As I pulled off my coat, I only slowly began to comprehend what my eyes were not quite believing.  Beyond that orange tree were others: grapefruit, lemon, pomelo — a citrus forest full of day-glow fruit, all coddled in geothermal heat.  If ever I thought winter meant months of starchy monotony, this greenhouse blew that misconception out the door.  Eckel pulled a tangerine off another tree — an Idaho tangerine.

“This is a Satsuma tangerine” she said.  “That’s the kind that the skin comes off of like a jacket, really easy, one hand. Lots of kids get these in their stockings Christmas morning in places like California.  I had maybe a thousand on this tree last year.”

Winter, of course, is a challenging time for those with a hunger for local food.  By January or February, an ascetic’s gruel of spuds, onions and wobbly carrots can weaken the resolve of even the most devoted locavore.  Then again, southern Idaho sits on the same latitude as Tuscany, meaning the Snake River Plain is endowed with the same length of winter light as that famously olive-soaked region of Italy — and that’s why some say what we lack in winter warmth we can make up for with our wealth of geothermal heat.  Couple that to greenhouses and Tuscan-level light and dreamers say we could blow that tired California lettuce and flaccid Florida O.J. out the door too.

If only weather were all that mattered.

James Reed in a leased greenhouse in Hagerman

James Reed, who first brought me to Merrily Eckel’s stunning little geothermal oasis, was, back then, deep into his own greenhouse dream, housed just down the road.

“Right now we’re at the Arches Greenhouse Complex” Reed said as we drove up to dozens of empty commercial greenhouses just outside of Hagerman.  “We’ve leased about 7000 square feet” he said.  “And we’re growing food here; it’s the first time food has been grown in these greenhouses for maybe 30 years.”

Traditionally, the hot-springs-heated greenhouses scattered all over southern Idaho have mostly grown flowers and bedding plants, not food. James Reed had hoped to change that, leasing off-season space to grow a winter’s worth of local lettuce, spinach, arugula — and maybe even early tomatoes and peppers — for Idaho’s Bounty, a local food distribution system Reed helped launch.

“These greenhouses are fairly unique” Reed said as we stepped into a toasty, translucent tunnel filled with baby greens.  “They’re heated with artesian geothermal water that comes out at about 130 degrees and enables us to keep these greenhouses warm through the winter with very little energy cost.  And that’s why we’re here.”  The place smelled like a just-plated salad, the lettuce so fresh it squeaked as we nibbled.  (Perfectly fresh winter greens are a revelation: as crisp and sweet as greens can ever be, they make trucked-in produce taste like yard waste.)  But even back then, Reed was cautious about how bright the future of Idaho winter greens could be.  “It remains to be seen if it’s economic to raise food in greenhouses” he said.  “No one is doing it and we’re in the process of finding out.”

Greens in a leased greenhouse in Hagerman

Greens in a leased greenhouse in Hagerman

Three years after that conversation, Reed had found out. During a recent phone call, he said with an unguarded sigh “It just has not been economic to do food.”  Even with nearly free heat, unused greenhouses and the compelling potential for unbeatably fresh fruit and crisp greens, James Reed said he smacked into the cold, hard reason why few Idahoans are growing in winter: Cheap, industrial food.

“It’s just too incredibly hard to compete with a truck coming in from California” said Reed.  “I do believe there is an emerging market for locally produced food but that really hasn’t translated in the willingness of people to pay the prices necessary to interest the more professional greenhouse growers.”

Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Organics in Sweet, Idaho is hoping to grow in geothermal greenhouses himself, but agrees with Reed about the frosty financial realities of local food in winter.  “With every advantage that we gain with either geothermal water or season extension techniques, we’re outdone by people who are thousands of miles away who are growing in a totally different climate” he says.  “That’s something that we just can’t compete with.  For every advantage we gain, there’s somebody out there that kind of cheats the system, to our way of thinking, and can produce even below what we can with our geothermal hot water.  So that’s frustrating, that’s really frustrating.”

Tim Sommer of Purple Sage Farms, outside his greenhouses in Middleton

Walking through crusty snow toward a row of his own greenhouses, Tim Sommer of Purple Sage Farms in Middleton says he understands that frustration.  In fact, as one of Idaho’s greenhouse veterans, he lived those frustrations for 20 growing seasons.  During that time, Sommer never grew winter vegetables.  He blames that, in part, on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in 1994 let loose a flood of cheap winter produce that surged north from Mexico.  (Unable to compete, Sommer buys and resales Mexican herbs himself.)

“So it didn’t work very good for us” Sommer says as he pushes his hands into his pockets and walks past aging tractors and empty greenhouses.  “In some ways I feel like I’m in a ghetto business” he says in a folksy, Henry Fonda-like cadence, “instead of out front shining.”

And yet, in the last two years, Sommer has found a reason to be tentatively optimistic, to maybe even begin to shine — thanks to the burgeoning local food movement.  “I’ve been so grateful for this change in people’s observance of the value of food in their lives and what it does to their bodies, their health, what it does to their community.  They have this whole new set of values.  It’s really changing things.”

Stepping into one of his greenhouses, Sommer pulls back a thin sheet of agricultural cloth, revealing a long row of dark green kale. “This crop that we’re looking at right now is a perfect example of that” he says.  “Two years ago we never grew winter crops.  All of a sudden I found that somebody wanted it.  I couldn’t believe it.  I found out for the first time ever that people would be interested in winter greens.”

Greens growning in Tim Sommer's greenhouse in late December

Tim Sommer of Purple Sage Farms in a greenhouse in Middleton

Sommer has finally begun growing and selling cold-season produce to Treasure Valley stores and restaurants that value locally grown, winter vegetables — and are willing to pay a proper price.  He can even afford to bring his son Mike back home to work with him now.

In a voice close to breaking, Sommer says “that’s how much this change in the local food movement, that’s how much change it’s brought.”  It’s a profound enough shift to warrant walking through hard snow to an empty field so he can show me where he plans to add additional greenhouses specifically designed to grow winter crops for the local market.  He doesn’t even have geothermal heat.  Just sunlight and renewed enthusiasm.

Waving his hand over a blank canvas of snow he says “Just changing the orientation to the sun would make this thing work without any fossil fuel or any other external source.  That’s one thing I’m convinced of.”

If cheap, industrial food can hobble agricultural innovation, it can’t seem to kill it.

Back in Hagerman, James Reed has found a profitable way to grow winter greens.  Instead of losing money on the retail market, he opened a restaurant in Twin Falls called the Local Dish Market & Cafe.  There his squeaky-fresh, greenhouse-grown produce is a prominent, profitable part of the menu.  Merrily Eckel, on the other hand, never had trouble getting a stellar price for her Idaho citrus.  Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum sells every bit of fruit she delivers.  Where else, she asks, can a locavore find a fresh Idaho orange?

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
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6 Responses to If Weather Were All That Mattered

  1. hbrookmangarden on January 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    WHY don’t we have an indoor, year-round space for the Capitol City Market in Boise?? If 12,000+ were coming to the Market in the summer, wouldn’t there be a market for all theses folks (and many more) in the winter?????

  2. Guy Hand on January 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I think there’s actually some serious talk about a year-round market. It’s a matter of finding the right venue and, of course, funds.

  3. Megan on January 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I totally agree about the indoor market… heck even if it weren’t indoor (which I can totally see why it would need to be) I’d come. I hate not being able to go in the winter. Going to the market has become part of who I am as a person and having that sense of connection to the local food supply has been a great blessing and has helped mold the way I think about eating and food now. I think we all owe it to ourselves to make that happen and we owe it to the people we love, whether they are friends, family, or neighbors to give them that opportunity as well. I’ve always thought Boise needs its own ‘Pike’s Place’.

    As for this article, I actually read it in the Boise Weekly but you did a wonderful job! I thoroughly enjoyed it and what a great idea of using geothermal heat! I think there has to be a balance, though, of cost of production vs cost for the consumer. Let’s face it, most families in Idaho cannot afford the price of organic, locally produced food. But if you consider the premise of supply and demand and how it affects price then this could totally work for Idaho. These options need to be available at more places than just the Co-Op and other similar stores (not that I have anything against those store, I love going to the Co-Op). For instance, Winco is based here in Idaho and if I’m being honest they have HORRIBLE produce most of the time. That produce could be so much better if it was produced locally (and organically) and shipped straight to the stores immediately after it’s picked and by using locally based chains farmers would be able to reach a larger customer base. The same thing could be done with stores like Albertson’s, Fred Meyers, and Paul’s. It doesn’t just have to be corner produce stands and the market. By making contracts like this we would encourage people to eat locally by making it more available and accessible, reduce locally produced food prices by increasing demand, create more jobs- specifically for farmers, and create a healthier state. This is an effort that would be totally worth it!

  4. helen on January 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    After I made the first (frustrated) comment about a year-round market, it ocurred to me that another word for year-round market could be “new grocery store”, but that isn’t really it. Like Megan, we shop at the Coop (every week), but we also shop elsewhere. We love the Coop, I am partial to the Freddy’s on Franklin, and I like Winco’s employee ownership. But none of those dollars matter as much to our family (of 3) as the almost $3,000 I spent provisioning us at the Market this past season-both through the market season, and getting ahead for the winter. We have also had CSA’s, and have a garden in the backyard.

    The stores are great, but many growers don’t produce that kind of volume. When they do, though, it would be good to see their stuff at places like Paul’s and Winco, as Megan suggests, and I think we will.

    I agree with Megan that a lot could be done to make local food more “accessible”, but I do not agree with those who say it is not affordable. Even if nickels and dimes are your only priorities, the food at the Market is not that far off from stores like Albertson’s. Quality also counts, though, and you get what you pay for (“HORRIBLE” to quote Megan). Food from the Market typically stays fresh much, much longer, even then the same produce from the same growers at the Coop (because it is still fresher at the Market and hasn’t been watered). Also, buying for the winter at the Market (boxes and boxes of produce), means pretty good deals, and a greatly reduced grocery budget all winter.

    So, Guy, it is good to hear y’all are working on it – we are fat and happy and well fed (so far), but we miss Clay and Lee and Josie and Jainie and Gilbert and Darlene and Matt and….well, everybody (and cheesecakes)!

  5. Chris on February 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Do they or anyone else in the area sell actual trees? I have been wanting to grow a Meyer’s lemon tree in my livingroom for a while now but they are tough to find and I would rather stay local than go over the internet. Ideas?

  6. Guy Hand on February 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Chris, I don’t know of anyone selling citrus trees locally, but I’ve also heard rumors that someone is growing Meyer’s lemons commercially in Emmett. I’m going to look into that and if I hear anything relevant, I’ll get back to you. I’ve got a couple of in-house dwarf citrus trees, but got them from a supplier in California.

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