Friday, July 4, 2014

Local food producers share lessons

Everything from eggs to pork and pickles from the Bellevue Triangle

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County farmer Dick Springs watches over his family of emus—a mother and her chicks—Wednesday at his ranch south of Bellevue. Emus are flightless birds that Springs uses to keep watch over his chickens. Photo by Roland Lane

    Dick Springs, founder and former owner of the Sustainability Center in Hailey, is a longtime gardener and promoter of local food production. He lives with his wife, Melinda Springs, on a farm in the Bellevue Triangle.

     Though the couple lives 12 miles south of Hailey and enjoy longer afternoons away from the hills that surround the Wood River Valley, their vegetables often face a more challenging climate.

     “Cold air flows down the valley and is blocked by the Picabo Hills,” Dick Springs said. “The whole Silver Creek drainage is a cold air sink. When you get to Baseline Road (south of Bellevue) the temperature can drop off a cliff. I’ve seen it 20 degrees colder down here. We get frost down here when you don’t get frost in Hailey.”

      Nevertheless, each summer the Springs family has had no trouble growing plenty of brassicas and root crops, which don’t mind the alkaline soils.

     “We also grow a lot of greens and vegetables,” Springs said. “We make sauerkraut and pickle things.”

     Springs said his farm does well with potatoes, carrots, beets and radishes, but that he wouldn’t try to grow warm-season crops such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers without a greenhouse.

     In years past, the Springs family has made an attempt to grow, catch or kill 80 percent of what they consume during the year, raising chickens, horses and occasionally pigs, all of which contribute to the rich soil they use for their small-scale intensive farming.

     “We have all the manure we can use,” Springs said. “But to do really good compost in this area is very difficult, because it’s cold and dry here. We do feed veggie scraps to chickens and pigs. They will turn it into manure. When we mow the lawn we use the grass clippings for the chickens.”

     The Springs family also has emus, 6-foot-tall birds native to Australia.

     “They protect the chickens from skunks, raccoons and coyotes,” he said. “When a skunk waddles over to the fence, it can be pretty intimidating to have a giant bird look down upon them.”

     Springs tried to establish a raspberry patch on private land two miles east of Hailey in Quigley Canyon several years ago. He found out firsthand the gardening challenges that can exist outside of town in a relatively wild environment.

     “We had all those marmots out there. They dug under and ate the roots. The raspberries didn’t work at all. It could have been done, but you needed more control of the water, and more control of whatever it is that’s eating on your plants.”

     Springs said he sees an increasing number of small-scale intensive farming and livestock operations getting started in the Bellevue Triangle.

     “I think you’re going to see more and more people grow for themselves, and even start small commercial ventures,” he said.    

     Kathy Noble has done just that. She is a successful landscape architect who lives in Hailey. When she’s not tending to the yards and flower beds of high-end clients in the upper Wood River Valley, she makes time for her side career as a small-scale livestock producer in the Bellevue Triangle, not far from the Springs farm.

     Noble started Angel Earth Farm a year ago. She goes south every afternoon to gather eggs and take care of her animals. She hired three part-time seasonal helpers last year and has plans to hire two more this summer.

     Noble is part of an expanding local food movement in Blaine County. Her specialty is raising chemical-free chickens and pigs.

     Seven years ago, Noble bought 10 acres of land south of Bellevue with a barn and shed, an agricultural well and a perimeter fence. Today she uses the land to follow a family tradition that she learned while growing up on a farm in the Coast Mountains of Oregon.

     “My grandmother always had about 200 chickens,” she said. “Grandpa had Jersey milk cows. He bred them to my uncle’s Hereford or Angus bulls to get beef calves. We slaughtered the calves for meat and the local market.”

     Noble keeps 250 egg-laying hens, as well as 200 free-range chickens in movable chicken pens. The manure they create serves to fertilize her pasture.

     “Because my grandparents were survivors of the Depression, they farmed with horses until the 1950s, never used pesticides or herbicides, and only used their own manure for fertilizer,” she said.

     Noble buys day-old chicks from Dunlap Hatchery in Caldwell, a French heritage breed called Turken or “naked necks” favored by local restaurants. After three months, they’re slaughtered in New Plymouth, Idaho, a four-hour drive away.

     “They are the premier broiler chickens which chefs are particularly excited about because they have a good flavor,” she said.

     Noble also raises 10 pigs each year, a Red Wattle heritage breed that does well on pasture and is known for its flavor.

     “They also have very gentle personalities,” she said.

     She starts with 2-month-old 35-pounders. By the end of summer, they reach upwards of 250 pounds.

     Noble sells her produce at the Bellevue General Store, the Sustainability Center in Hailey and Main Street Market in Ketchum, and by private agreements with buyers. Most of her eggs are sold through the Idaho’s Bounty food co-op.

      Noble said she welcomes the learning challenge of becoming a productive farmer, taking online classes from the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides and the University of Idaho Extension office in Hailey. She has taken classes (sometimes on line) about cover crops, soil biology, beneficial pollinators, soil building and weed control without chemicals. The classes often include farm visits. 

     “It’s a whole new set of information to study, and I’ve always been a perennial student,” she said.

     Noble is not getting rich from her new venture, but that could improve with better marketing.

     “I’m breaking even, which is not bad after one year. I still have some pigs in the freezer that I could sell, but I don’t have time to go out and talk to chefs,” she said.

     Noble said one of the reasons local produce can be prohibitively expensive is because of the need to ship animals long distance for processing. Her hens and chickens are trucked 187 miles to New Plymouth. Noble takes her pigs 130 miles to Blackfoot, Idaho, the closest USDA-certified processing plant.

     She said she’s part of a group of local farmers working to create a mobile chicken- and rabbit-processing center that would be based in Shoshone and serve the Wood River Valley.

     Noble said the mobile center could process the 4,000 chickens raised each year in south-central Idaho. She said another effort is afoot to find grants for a permanent red meat processing center in Shoshone that could serve lamb, beef and pork producers.

     “If we get the price down, then more restaurants, hospitals, school districts and others could start buying local food,” she said.

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