Friday, June 20, 2014

Small-scale food activists grow for local market

Tradesmen turn hobbies into part-time jobs

Express Staff Writer

Bellevue mechanic Keith Selner turned his suburban lawn in Chantrelle subdivision into a miniature organic farm. He sells produce throughout the Wood River Valley. Photo by Roland Lane

    This summer, local stores and restaurants in the Wood River Valley will feature produce from part-time gardeners and food activists, some of whom have turned hobbies into profitable ventures.
    Ed and Nevin Herr, ages 58 and 54, respectively, grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania before coming to Idaho many years ago to work as home builders.
    “I was 12 years old before I ate store-bought vegetables,” said Ed Herr, who grew interested in organic gardening after suffering from serious health issues seven years ago.
    When the construction market took a turn for the worse, he and his brother decided to turn an empty half-acre residential lot in Picabo into a miniature working farm, complete with egg-laying hens.
    “I was going to build a house here, but then decided to do this instead. It started as a hobby and then got out of hand,” Ed Herr said.
    The brothers’ location in Picabo, about 25 miles from Ketchum, gives them 6 to 8 degrees more warmth in early spring, and, therefore, a longer growing season. They use no pesticides or herbicides in plots that include beans, onions, broccoli, potatoes and three plantings of sweet corn.
    “We grow for subsistence, but we also sell a lot of garlic and strawberries to support our hobby,” Herr said. “We grow all the vegetables we need for the entire year.”
    Herr said it took three years to break even on equipment expenses.
    “But in reality, we’ve been ahead longer because we’ve been saving about $2,500 each year by not buying vegetables,” he said.
    The Herr brothers’ strawberries, a Fort Laramie strain developed for high desert climates, are noted around the Wood River Valley for their exquisite taste. Last year, they sold 400 pounds of them.
    “This is not a commercial variety that has been developed to look good and have a long shelf life. Our strawberries could never get here from California or Mexico because they wouldn’t last that long,” Herr said.
    Herr gives his home-building clients “preferential treatment” when it comes to buying his produce, which can take a lot of work to bring to the table.
    “With no weed-killer, we end up weeding by hand, but if you keep up with it regularly, it’s not so bad,” he said.
    The Herr brothers sell strawberries to commercial buyers from the Picabo Store and Bellevue General Store, as well as by appointment to “you-pick” buyers who come to the garden by appointment only. To make an appointment, call 788-4902.

Keith Selner
    Keith Selner has worked as a mechanic for 35 years at Bruce’s Automotive in Bellevue. A few years ago, he became passionate about organic gardening after reading “Four Seasons Grower” by Eliot Coleman and “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka.
    Selner transformed his front lawn in Chantrelle subdivision in Bellevue into a raised-bed organic garden, selling vegetables to area restaurants and the Sustainability Center in Hailey.
    He also raises chickens in his backyard and grows greens year round in small hot houses. Each spring he starts seeds in his garage on portable planting beds that he wheels onto his driveway when the weather allows.
    “I haven’t bought a tomato in three years,” he said. “Store-bought vegetables taste so bad it makes me angry.”
    Selner grows a number of heirloom tomatoes, including one prize fruit last year that weighed two pounds. He also favors Palm Kale, a variety that he said was developed “a few hundred years ago” and is popular with Sun Valley buyers.
    Selner said he enjoys the break from work at the garage, while weeding and planting.
    “There is no pressure doing this. I just lose myself,” he said.
    He also enjoys making a small stand against rising food costs and the use of genetically modified organisms by the agriculture industry.
    “GMOs should not be allowed in this country,” he said. “We can grow enough food without them.”
    Selner said his efforts are part of a trend called “SPIN farming,” an aconym for small-plot intensive, which aggregates urban and suburban growers into farming collectives.
    “This is what every family should know how to do on some level,” he said. “If we had small farms all over the country, no one would go hungry and there would be plenty of jobs.”
    Last summer Selner sold $3,000 worth of produce, some of it going to four restaurants. This year he plans to increase his sales to $6,000.
    At the end of the growing season, Selner said, he will contribute seeds to the Hailey Library’s seed library, a growing collection of local seeds organized by the Rocky Mountain Seed Project, a Ketchum-based seed-saving research and development organization advocating for local and regional seed security.
    To contact the Wood River Sustainability Center in Hailey go to: or call 721-3114.
    To contact the Rocky Mountain Seed Project, call John Caccia at 309-8557.

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