Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Idaho?s Bounty: Linking regional farmers and buyers

Group meets to organize Internet option for selling organic products


Farmers, ranchers and co-founders of Idaho?s Bounty gather in Hagerman in late February. Photo by Tony Evans

Spurred by concerns about "peak oil," dissatisfaction with industrialized farming methods, and a growing demand for local produce, about 40 organic farmers and ranchers, entrepreneurs and community leaders met in Hagerman in late February to establish the "Idaho's Bounty" food cooperative. The co-op organizers plan to link regional growers and food producers from the Magic Valley and Hagerman with Internet-based food shoppers in the Wood River Valley.

Building on recent interest in farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture programs, the Idaho's Bounty meeting was called to present the results of a survey conducted by Ketchum-based AmeriCorps volunteer Laura Theis. The survey, which reached 1,200 homes in the Wood River Valley, was designed to measure support for a "re-localized" food economy based on regional cooperation between food growers and food consumers.

"There was a very positive overall response to the survey," said Theis, who has worked for the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum since October, "Thirty percent of e-mails were returned with 455 responses, showing that 99 percent of respondents consume organic products."

How to go about supplying this demand locally was the topic of the Idaho's Bounty meeting.

"We hit a wall at the farmers' markets because you could only reach so many people that way," said Shoshone farmer Fred Brossy. "It's a big frustration that we still send most of our produce out of state."

Brossy and at least 20 other farmers and ranchers dined on a smorgasbord of local produce, cheeses, grilled lamb, pork sausages and local wines during the meeting at the Hagerman home of James and Leslee Reed on the edge of the Snake River. All present expressed enthusiasm for the Idaho's Bounty co-op plans and set about organizing a buy-in network to bring local food producers and food consumers together in the near future through direct-marketing, local distribution and community ownership.

The project is based on similar grassroots co-ops in Oklahoma, Montana and elsewhere. Idaho's Bounty producers and consumers will pay an annual membership fee of about $75 as well as a percentage of sales to cover Internet marketing, shipping and bookkeeping services for local production, distribution and consumption of everything from eggs, herbs, fish and vegetables to milk, cheese, pork and beef. In return, co-op members will get to know their local farmers and ranchers, and have some control over their food supply.

Kelley Weston, one of the co-founders of Idaho's Bounty, sees the co-op as an opportunity for the region to go to a new stage in farm production and consumption.

Weston, who owns Native Landscapes in Hailey, has been a farmer since the late 1970s and formerly served as chairman of the Sawtooth Community Garden in Ketchum, where he organized the valley's first community supported agriculture program. However, it is scheduled to end this year, due in part to the popularity of farmers' markets in Ketchum and Hailey.

"We want to create a market that spurs entrepreneurial interest," Weston said. "The destruction of the agrarian economy in the last 40 years has been catastrophic. Applying an industrial model to cattle production has been catastrophic. We have to remember that Dairy Gold and Sunkist were once co-ops. Now they are major corporations. So our ethical pledge is to keep to a sustainable scale in this particular place at this particular time with these particular people. We need the strength to say, 'this is enough ... this is OK.'"

After lunch, meeting attendees broke into separate "producer," "consumer" and "financing" workshop groups to discuss ideas. Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, who farms in the Bellevue Triangle, noted that members of the Idaho Department of Agriculture were interested in the project, but unable to attend due a scheduling conflict.

"You have to see this as rural economic development," Schoen advised. "I think this is a terrific effort and I would like to help work out the details."

Benjamin Gisin, founder of Touch the Soil magazine, also attended the Hagerman meeting.

"The mainstream system is not sustainable," he said.

After 20 years working as an agricultural banker, Gisin decided go into promotion of local farming co-operatives. He provided information for distribution based on a co-op "food shed" or regional growing area near Alburquerque, N.M., which he said is re-vitalizing that regions small farms.

"Many innovations for profitability in localized farming, such as farmer's markets, CSAs and co-ops all involve the producers working directly with the consumer," Gisin said.

College of Southern Idaho business consultant Jerry Mottern agreed to provide expertise in business planning of Idaho's Bounty.

"We are lending our support in any way we can. We are glad to be a part of this," Mottern said.

Mike Stevens, of Lava Lake Ranch in Carey, which is already a member of a 120-ranch co-op, expressed his desire to address hunger and social justice issues in Idaho through programs like Idaho's Bounty. He shared inspiration from travels in Navajo Indian country where he saw a system of independent, organic community gardens.

Following the Hagerman meeting, Idaho's Bounty co-founder James Reed made a presentation to the Wood River Resource and Conservation Area Council in Gooding, which passed a measure to search for grants for Idaho's Bounty. Polly Huggins, project coordinator for the council, will head up the effort.

Meanwhile, Reed has organized the first shipment of food surpluses from Hagerman Valley. Organized through e-mail sales and delivered in his own truck, Idaho's Bounty will serve beef, pork, potatoes, eggs, beans and honey to its first 30 customers in the Wood River Valley this week.

"This is a test project," he said. "We are hoping to build trust with the producers that we can buy what they produce. The demand is there. Supply and distribution are going to be the challenge."

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