Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Keeping food fresh and local

Dick and Melinda Springs stir the pot at Hailey’s Sustainability Center

Express Staff Writer

Dick Springs runs the Sustainability Center in central Hailey, in a compound of former Forest Service buildings. Photo by David N. Seelig

On a chilly November day, well after fall harvest, Dick Springs is selling produce at the Sustainability Center on River Street in Hailey. Fruit from nearby orchards lies drying on racks. A tub of locally produced honey is also available for sale. In a back room is a growing library of books and magazines on small-scale agriculture.

"We want to create a place where people can meet and talk about food," says Springs, who raised Beef Master cattle for 30 years in Oregon before coming to Blaine County in 1996.

Behind a makeshift cashier's stand at the Sustainability Center are two tall freezers full of lamb from a flock that walked down River Street during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival this fall. The freezer also contains free-range, grass-fed chickens from Springs' south-county Kelok Illahee Farm, and dozens of organic turkeys from Lava Hot Springs near Pocatello.

"Grown right and right nearby" is the motto for Dick and his wife, Melinda. They want you to know who grows your vegetables and who raises the chickens you eat. The couple sells salmon from a small-scale netting and processing plant in Bristol Bay, Alaska, but he knows personally the woman whose family catches the fish.

"Local is more important today than organic. Local and fresh," says Springs, who studied farming practices and regulations in Idaho and elsewhere before setting up shop.

Eddie Gardner comes down to River Street from Ketchum once or twice a week to buy meats and cheese. He leaves today with an additional cluster of hard-neck garlic, still dirty and with long, dried whistles attached.

"I would buy raw milk if it was legal," Gardner says. "I lived four years in Afghanistan and drank it every day and never got sick."

Springs says U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations prohibit the sale of unpasteurized raw milk, a prohibition that he says is "excessive" and restricts some small-scale dairy operations from making a profit.

"Pasteurization kills off all of the micro-fauna in milk. It was implemented to fight tuberculosis, but some people don't want their milk pasteurized. In the case of dairy regulations, the laws favor larger operations. Small-scale operations can't afford the process."

Springs knows some things about farming and is learning more each day from people who drop in to shop, sell or talk about food.

"Strawberries and potatoes are the most heavily pesticided crops in the United States," he says. "When you buy them in a supermarket, you don't know what pathogens you could be eating. When you know your farmer, part of what you are paying for is trust."

Springs is opposed to the patenting of crops such as Roundup-ready, pesticide-resistant types, which are genetically engineered to grow under doses of Roundup pesticide, where nothing else will grow.

"Nature made plants in a way that if you put certain things on them they should die," Springs says.

He has high standards for raising chickens, too.

At the Springses' farm near Picabo, chickens live in portable coops. The chicken droppings fertilize the field they live on, and are guarded by a pair of 6-foot-tall emus, flightless birds native to Australia.

"We bought them thinking we would breed them for meat," Springs says. "But they are so good at predator control we just kept them."

Chantal Westerman, former Hollywood correspondent for "Good Morning America," drops by at dusk for a few supplies. Her golden retriever is given a smoked lamb bone to chew on while she shops and chats with others around a table.

The bones come from Del Monte Meats in Pocatello, a small-scale meat processing plant that handles volumes of no more than 1,000 chickens per customer, few enough to remain under the radar of USDA regulators. The Springses like operations like Del Monte because they keep things small.

"This place will also feed your soul," Westerman says. "I get nourished in a lot of areas of my life coming here, from the fellowship and from the conversation."

Ric Lum, chef and founder of Delicious Revolution catering, comes by to check on his elk stew, which he processed from a local source and now sells at the Sustainability Center.

Hailey concrete worker Don McQuary also spends a lot of time at the Sustainability Center, selling and buying produce. Last summer, he talked an adjacent property owner into letting him till 4,200 square feet of undeveloped real estate in China Gardens subdivision for a garden, growing "a little bit of everything," including sweet potatoes and watermelons—no easy feat in the Wood River Valley.

When Springs found out about McQuary's plans to farm, he provided a tractor to turn the soil.

McQuary in turn helped Springs salvage a 10-by-15-foot freezer from Jerome they hope to use this winter as a communal meat locker.

Getting close to your food and to your farmer is what the Sustainabilty Center is all about.

At the conclusion of his interview, Dick Springs quotes a Chinese proverb: "The best fertilizer is the footprint of the owner."

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