Small Idaho farms cultivate optimism

The local food movement is all about sustainability. Can it produce sustainable profits?

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJuly 16, 2013 

Dan Meyer fights an ever-losing battle with the weeds on his three acres of crops off East Warm Springs Avenue in Boise.

That's because Meyer doesn't use any chemicals on his Morning Owl Farm. New weeds crop up between the kale rows by the time he's done weeding the bok choy.

Meyer works hard to tend to the 20 to 30 crops he grows each year.

Meyer says he's seen a sharp increase in the interest and demand for local produce. Shoppers who seek out Valley-grown veggies expect to pay more than they would for lettuce or tomatoes grown in California and sold at large grocery stores. It's the nonlocal shoppers who are struck by sticker shock, like a woman who stopped by a small stand Meyer used to sell produce from in front of Dunia Marketplace in Hyde Park.

"She had a coffee from Java that probably cost $4, but she balked at a pint of cherry tomatoes that was $2," Meyer says. "Some people just don't have that mind-set, or at least they don't have it yet."

Meyer, 27, sells to Locavore, a Boise restaurant that promotes its menu of local meal options, and the Farm & Garden Produce market in Hyde Park. His big breadwinners are two community supported agriculture subscriptions, or CSAs, one that he runs by himself and another he organizes with other farmers. Subscribers to Meyer's summer CSA, called "Back to Basics," pay $490 upfront and receive weekly deliveries to their door for 20 weeks. Each delivery consists of five to eight of whatever vegetables are ready to harvest.

Meyer closed enrollment at 35 subscriptions for the summer CSA. He's a one-man operation. He says he'll have to increase his efficiency in order to expand the program.

He teams with other farmers for a winter CSA, "The Next Level," which offers local fruit from Eagle Creek Orchards in Richland, Ore., pasture-raised chicken from Turkey Ridge Farm in New Plymouth and grass-fed beef and pork from Homestead Natural Foods in Middleton.

Meyer says passion for small-plot agriculture alone won't make the business successful. He has a business degree from Boise State University, which he says will be invaluable if he's going to stay in business in the long term. He thinks the business will be profitable enough to justify the long, sun-drenched hours, though he works two days a week at Zamzows garden, home and pet store to supplement his income.

"Often, farmers have the approach they'll just do what they love and make it work," Meyer says. "But you have to have grounding in reality."

PURPLE SAGE FARMS

Middleton

Tim Sommer and his wife, Tamara Sloviaczek, started Purple Sage Farms 25 years ago. They've developed a niche growing up to 90 certified organic crops including fresh herbs, flowers, greens and lesser-known crops such as purslane, French sorrel and epazote.

Purple Sage sells its produce at the Boise Farmers Market and to Idaho's Bounty Co-op, which distributes produce from about 90 growers in the Treasure, Magic and Wood River valleys to individuals, restaurants and grocery stores.

The farm isn't a cash cow. Sloviaczek's job as a manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. keeps the operation afloat. Sommer says the farm usually runs between a $5,000 loss and a $5,000 profit each year. He's frustrated he can't afford to pay more than minimum wage or provide health insurance for the six to eight employees Purple Sage hires during the growing and harvest seasons.

"People ask why I'm still doing this if I'm not making any money, and I want to shake them," Sommer says. "It's because the alternative (to producing local food) takes us down a very wrong road."

Sommer says he's seen a big increase in the demand for locally grown food in the last decade, especially since books such as Michael Pollan's 2006 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," pushed sustainable food and chemical-free produce into mainstream conversation.

Sommer says he hopes Treasure Valley cities can follow Portland as a model for supporting farms like his, even if that means paying more at the cash register.

"I've got to stand for something," Sommer says. "People who stand for things often don't make money at it. Or, 20 years down the road, they look brilliant."

IDAHO'S BOUNTY CO-OP

Hailey

About 90 food producers in the Treasure, Magic and Wood River valleys pool crops in Idaho's Bounty Co-op. This gives grocery stores, restaurant and shoppers surfing the co-op's website a broader assortment of locally raised vegetables and meats than if they bought from a single small farm.

That's important for large buyers, such as the Boise Co-op and the Atkinson's Markets in the Wood River Valley.

Arlie Sommer, who grew up working on her parents' Purple Sage Farms, is now the manager of the co-op's Boise region.

The co-op was born because mainstream food distributors didn't make efforts to adopt local foods into their business models, Sommer says. The co-op is an effort to close that loop, she says.

"It's becoming smart business sense for restaurants and grocery stores to capitalize on the 'support local' idea," she says.

The co-op had about 100 customers after Lynea Petty started the operation in 2008, including no restaurants or stores.

The co-op has expanded its orders by more than 25 percent in each year since, Petty says. Today the co-op sells to about 150 regular individual customers, 25 restaurants and seven grocery stores.

The co-op grossed $764,000 in sales last year and accepted $55,000 in grants and donations.

Petty says the co-op will need to gross $1.3 million in order to keep its operation running without additional funding.

She says the co-op's rapid growth makes her optimistic that it can become self-sufficient, but she doesn't see any problem with accepting grants and donations.

"Nearly everyone else in the business of agriculture makes it with the help of subsidies or grants," Petty says. "There is no reason we cannot achieve success in a similar fashion buoyed by such fiscal inputs along our way."

The co-op will never be a profit-driven enterprise, Petty says. Volunteers contribute more than 3,000 hours each year because they believe in building a local food distribution system and not because they think they are getting in on the ground floor of the next big money maker.

"The co-op is about getting as many dollars back into the farmer's pocket as possible," Petty said. "It is definitely not going to top an investor's top 10 list. This organization is about taking the long, community view."

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Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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