Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Living off the land

Blaine County ranchers, farmers stay hopeful amid falling prices, rising expenses

Express Staff Writer

Katie Breckenridge and her horse, Chrome, pause before heading out to round up some of Breckenridge’s yearling horses. Breckenridge’s ranch, the B-Bar-B, raises quarter horses and organic beef cattle. Photo by Willy Cook

"Trying to take a piece of ground and make it support a family is exceedingly difficult," said Dick Springs, farmer and founder of the Wood River Sustainability Center in Hailey.

Farms and ranches in Blaine County face a triple threat: falling prices, rising expenses and the uncertainty of the future of agriculture on the next generation.

The malt barley market is down 36 percent this year, which means trouble for farmers in the area whose incomes rely on contracts with brewers Coors and Anheuser-Busch. Bellevue malt barley farmer Rocky Sherbine said the industry was pretty good a few years ago, but when the demand for corn fell, it dragged almost all other prices down with it.

"[Financially,] it's a struggle, just like it is for everyone right now," Sherbine said. "All we can do is pray we have a good crop."

Thankfully, Carey grower Jim Peterson says, the barley hasn't been hit too badly by this year's long, cold spring.

"The barley looks good," Peterson said. Last year, Peterson was named Idaho's top barley grower by Coors, and came within one quarter of a quality point from being named the best grower in the nation.

Peterson is looking at another year of high-quality barley, but his alfalfa, another major Blaine County crop, was hurt by the weather. Yields were down by nearly a third for Peterson, and Sherbine admitted the cold and rainy spring delayed his alfalfa crop as well.

Sherbine and his father, Bill, are partners in a cow-and-calf operation. Cows in their 450 head of cross-bred beef cattle give birth in March and April. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite the collapse of the cattle market in 2007, the price of cattle is now up slightly from last year, up almost $9.50 a head for a live steer. Carey rancher Dick Payne said the price of sheep is up now as well, though prices usually fall in autumn when more lambs come to market.

Idaho land is more suited to raising livestock than crops, according to Springs, and Peterson said his father used to make a good living raising livestock.

"He always made more money than I did, right up until his retirement," Peterson said, laughing. "The livestock beat the farm, every time."

However, even with livestock there's no escaping the weather. Sherbine said he depends on good weather through calving season in March and April, and feeding his stock through the winter is a challenge.

"Rain and shine, you have to go out there and feed the cows," he said.

The key to surviving fluctuating markets, according to Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge, is to diversify and find a niche. She has three niche products on the ranch she runs with her husband, Ron Struthers—organic beef, organic hay and certified quarter horses.

"When one is high, the other is low," she said, "and hopefully the third is breaking even."

Springs said Wood River Valley weather limits the diversity available to farmers.

"Sometimes the season is as short as 65 days," he said.

Springs and Sherbine agreed the hard, late freezes pose major challenges to farmers in the area.

"We're very limited in what we can grow," Sherbine said.

Springs' diverse 115-acre farm in Picabo includes heritage (slower growing, higher quality) pork and chicken, emu, horses, ducks and feed, but he says he could never make a financial living off of it, though he and his wife raise much of the food they consume.

He said it's "exceedingly difficult" to start a farm from scratch. The cost of land in Blaine County is prohibitive, and most farmers pulling a profit in this economy are multi-generation family farmers who already own their land and equipment.

If you don't own your land, he said, "farming doesn't justify the effort put into it."

Even owning her own land, Breckenridge said, other expenses have "skyrocketed."

Like everyone, farmers are struggling with the cost of fuel. Peterson said that the fuel spike has been a major challenge for him. Diesel has gone up and so has the price of fertilizer, which Peterson said is natural gas-based.

Sherbine is consolidating, he said, and keeping his hay operation going. After the drop in ethanol prices, he said, all the other prices came "back to reality—except for expenses," which remained constant and even rose.

Breckenridge said she's consolidating, too, but seems relatively unfazed by most challenges facing area farmers.

"We grew up knowing the highs and lows of agriculture," she said of herself and her husband. "We love it, we love our land, we love our lifestyle."

When things get rough, she said, "you just grab another gear and keep going."

But when asked who will take over the B-Bar-B ranch when she retires, she is almost overcome with emotion.

"I'm 65 years old and I wonder what will happen," she said. "Who will want to take on the challenges of holding this land together? We don't have an answer."

Peterson, too, is unsure. He began farming during his sophomore year of high school, when his grandfather died and he and his brother took over management of that farm, which originally grew feed barley and hay.

Many of the larger farmers in the valley have had three or four generations of farming in their families. Sherbine's land has been in his family for three generations. Breckenridge and Struthers are the third and fourth generation of ranchers and farmers, respectively, and Payne bought his ranch from his uncle and his father in 1988.

"Our roots go deep," Breckenridge said.

But Breckenridge said she worries that the current generation isn't stepping up like their predecessors had. Struthers' three children haven't shown an interest in taking on the B-Bar-B, she said, so she's not sure what will happen to what she calls "a lifetime" of work.

Peterson's two older sons, Kolby and Kourtney, had a Coors contract for a while, he said, but were renting land from neighbors. When the rents went up, the boys couldn't make a profit and gave up the contract. Peterson's sons now work in the construction and trucking industries, their days of raising 4-H lambs long behind them.

Peterson said he hopes one of his sons will return to the farm when he retires. There are some young farmers in Carey who are very successful, he said, and there's room for more.

That's good news for Payne's son, whom Payne says is currently running a cattle ranch and will eventually take over Payne's livestock.

Sherbine's youngest son, Isaac, is also looking to eventually make a living through farming. In addition to growing his own barley and hay, Sherbine is what is called a custom farmer, a farmer who uses his own equipment to raise crops on another person's land for a flat fee. Isaac, who recently turned 21, has taken over the stacking of a neighboring farmer's hay.

While the normally positive Breckenridge says her biggest challenge is "believing there is a future for agriculture in the Wood River Valley," Peterson has a more optimistic view.

"The living's here, if you have the ambition," he said. "You do a good job, and you can make a good living farming."

Katherine Wutz:

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