A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio
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HAGERMAN: Deep into another Idaho winter, I canâ€™t help but think back on a battered greenhouse in an icy Hagerman field that I stumbled toward some three years ago.Â From the outside, that greenhouse all but faded into a snow-flecked sky.Â 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.Â In front of us stood a full grown orange tree, heavy with fruit.
â€śAnything you could grow from Baja north, you can grow in hereâ€ť Eckleâ€™s said through a half-contained smile (Iâ€™m sure she never grows tired of the the look on peoplesâ€™ faces when they walk through that door).Â As I pulled off my coat, I only slowly began to comprehend what my eyes were not quite believing.Â Beyond that orange tree were others: grapefruit, lemon, pomelo â€” a citrus forest full of day-glow fruit, all coddled in geothermal heat.Â If ever I thought winter meant months of starchy monotony, this greenhouse blew that misconception out the door.Â Eckel pulled a tangerine off another tree â€” an Idaho tangerine.
â€śThis is a Satsuma tangerineâ€ť she said.Â â€śThatâ€™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.Â I had maybe a thousand on this tree last year.â€ť
Winter, of course, is a challenging time for those with a hunger for local food.Â By January or February, an asceticâ€™s gruel of spuds, onions and wobbly carrots can weaken the resolve of even the most devoted locavore.Â 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 â€” and thatâ€™s why some say what we lack in winter warmth we can make up for with our wealth of geothermal heat.Â 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, who first brought me to Merrily Eckelâ€™s stunning little geothermal oasis, was, back then, deep into his own greenhouse dream, housed just down the road.
â€śRight now weâ€™re at the Arches Greenhouse Complexâ€ť Reed said as we drove up to dozens of empty commercial greenhouses just outside of Hagerman.Â â€śWeâ€™ve leased about 7000 square feetâ€ť he said.Â â€śAnd weâ€™re growing food here; itâ€™s the first time food has been grown in these greenhouses for maybe 30 years.â€ť
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 winterâ€™s worth of local lettuce, spinach, arugula â€” and maybe even early tomatoes and peppers â€” for Idahoâ€™s Bounty, a local food distribution system Reed helped launch.
â€śThese greenhouses are fairly uniqueâ€ť Reed said as we stepped into a toasty, translucent tunnel filled with baby greens.Â â€śTheyâ€™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.Â And thatâ€™s why weâ€™re here.â€ťÂ The place smelled like a just-plated salad, the lettuce so fresh it squeaked as we nibbled.Â (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.)Â But even back then, Reed was cautious about how bright the future of Idaho winter greens could be.Â â€śIt remains to be seen if itâ€™s economic to raise food in greenhousesâ€ť he said.Â â€śNo one is doing it and weâ€™re in the process of finding out.â€ť
Three years after that conversation, Reed had found out. During a recent phone call, he said with an unguarded sigh â€śIt just has not been economic to do food.â€ťÂ 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.
â€śItâ€™s just too incredibly hard to compete with a truck coming in from Californiaâ€ť said Reed.Â â€śI do believe there is an emerging market for locally produced food but that really hasnâ€™t translated in the willingness of people to pay the prices necessary to interest the more professional greenhouse growers.â€ť
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.Â â€śWith 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 climateâ€ť he says.Â â€śThat’s something that we just can’t compete with.Â 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.Â So that’s frustrating, that’s really frustrating.â€ť
Walking through crusty snow toward a row of his own greenhouses, Tim Sommer of Purple Sage Farms in Middleton says he understands that frustration.Â In fact, as one of Idahoâ€™s greenhouse veterans, he lived those frustrations for 20 growing seasons.Â During that time, Sommer never grew winter vegetables.Â 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.Â (Unable to compete, Sommer buys and resales Mexican herbs himself.)
â€śSo it didnâ€™t work very good for usâ€ť Sommer says as he pushes his hands into his pockets and walks past aging tractors and empty greenhouses.Â â€śIn some ways I feel like Iâ€™m in a ghetto businessâ€ť he says in a folksy, Henry Fonda-like cadence, â€śinstead of out front shining.â€ť
And yet, in the last two years, Sommer has found a reason to be tentatively optimistic, to maybe even begin to shine â€” thanks to the burgeoning local food movement.Â â€śIâ€™ve been so grateful for this change in peopleâ€™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.Â They have this whole new set of values.Â Itâ€™s really changing things.â€ť
Stepping into one of his greenhouses, Sommer pulls back a thin sheet of agricultural cloth, revealing a long row of dark green kale. â€śThis crop that weâ€™re looking at right now is a perfect example of thatâ€ť he says.Â â€śTwo years ago we never grew winter crops.Â All of a sudden I found that somebody wanted it.Â I couldnâ€™t believe it.Â I found out for the first time ever that people would be interested in winter greens.â€ť
Sommer has finally begun growing and selling cold-season produce to Treasure Valley stores and restaurants that value locally grown, winter vegetables â€” and are willing to pay a proper price.Â He can even afford to bring his son Mike back home to work with him now.
In a voice close to breaking, Sommer says â€śthatâ€™s how much this change in the local food movement, thatâ€™s how much change itâ€™s brought.â€ťÂ Itâ€™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.Â He doesnâ€™t even have geothermal heat.Â Just sunlight and renewed enthusiasm.
Waving his hand over a blank canvas of snow he says â€śJust changing the orientation to the sun would make this thing work without any fossil fuel or any other external source.Â Thatâ€™s one thing Iâ€™m convinced of.â€ť
If cheap, industrial food can hobble agricultural innovation, it canâ€™t seem to kill it.
Back in Hagerman, James Reed has found a profitable way to grow winter greens.Â Instead of losing money on the retail market, he opened a restaurant in Twin Falls called the Local Dish Market & Cafe.Â There his squeaky-fresh, greenhouse-grown produce is a prominent, profitable part of the menu.Â Merrily Eckel, on the other hand, never had trouble getting a stellar price for her Idaho citrus.Â Atkinsonsâ€™ Market in Ketchum sells every bit of fruit she delivers.Â Where else, she asks, can a locavore find a fresh Idaho orange?
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.