Ariel Agenbroad has a big title: area extension educator for community food systems and small farms at the University of Idaho Extension.
Agenbroad is the first person to have that title in Ada County. She spends her days teaching people how to produce food in their own gardens as well as something she calls “growing new farmers,” helping people get involved with agriculture in a more professional, large-scale way. Agenbroad shared some of her wisdom with the Idaho Statesman.
Q: What’s your area of expertise?
A: I’m working in community food systems, anything about production, processing, marketing, transporting food, as well as hunger issues and the farm to school movement — making it easier for schools to buy locally grown produce. I’m also working with school gardens and teacher training through BUGS (Boise Urban Garden School). Sometimes schools are concerned about the safety of growing food on site. We use the 4-H curriculum to teach food safety. Master Gardener volunteers from around the state have also pitched in.
The other key piece of my job is growing new farmers. We have a statewide USDA-funded project to offer sustainable small-acreage classes around the state. A class is just ending at our site in Caldwell. There are 42 people in that class. Some own their own land. Some are looking for land. It’s a diverse group of all ages, from people in their early 20s to retirement age, and experience. Some have been farming and want to start something new, like getting involved with farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture where customers pay to receive boxes of produce each week). Others, especially those from Boise, are doctors, lawyers, PhDs, MBAs. They don’t have land, but they have good ideas. People in the class are making good connections with one another.
I’m also working on the Idaho Victory Garden program, which helps people learn to grow more food at home. Food security starts at home. It’s exciting that the university sees value in this.
Q: Depending on who you talk to, the Treasure Valley can range from growing zone 5 to zone 7. What’s your take?
A: I would say buy your annuals thinking optimistically that we’re zone 7, but buy your fruit trees and perennials as if we were zone 5. We do have freak winters where we drop below 0.
Q: Kale, backyard chickens, small space and container gardening — they’ve all been popular trends recently. Are you seeing any new trends?
A: We are eating differently as Americans, that could translate into different growing patterns. Right now, the hot consumer trends are fresh food and fresh snacks. We are eating continually, not eating at set meals as often. But when we’re snacking, we’re looking more at fresh, healthy foods and growing vegetables that don’t require preparation to eat: sugar snap peas, tiny cucumbers, tiny tomatoes. Eating breakfast is also becoming more popular, eating early and more often.
People continue to like it when their food has a story, when they’re growing a local heirloom, for example. We are also so obsessed with fat, gluten, soy. That explains some of the growing popularity of fresh garden veggies. There’s nothing cleaner, or fresher. Our palates are also becoming more sophisticated; we’re growing baby kale, ghost peppers. All the fancy stuff you see on menus or at Whole Foods.
Gardening is a growing trend among millennials. It’s in keeping with the maker movement, people wanting to know where their food comes from, and learning traditional life skills.
Q: What are some good “starter crops” for beginning backyard gardeners?
A: A lot of tomatoes are easy as long as they’re in the ground and planted after (approximately) Mother’s Day (May 8). They are harder to grow in containers. Radishes are super fail-safe. I really like perennial herbs like fat leaf berggarten sage and garlic chives. It’s like having both garlic and onions. Lovage gets 5 feet tall and tastes like celery. (Celery is hard to grow.) It has a large umbel (resembling umbrella ribs) flower. It attracts pollinators and is a good addition to the perennial border. And I like kale. It’s easy to grow and it has a good nutritional value without requiring a lot of space.
Q: What’s the best piece of garden advice you’ve ever gotten?
A: “If you can, do.” Grow a garden that includes a row for someone who’s hungry, or for a nearby home for seniors. Pay it forward by teaching what you know to a neighbor or a child. It’s this notion of giving back. Moscow has a program called Backyard Harvest. It set up drop-off sites for produce donations and helps get food to people who need it. It operates outside of food banks, soup kitchens and shelters. But those places also need donations, too, of course.
Though extension programs have existed in the U.S. since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, they’re still a largely untapped or unknown resource in some communities.
Acts in 1862 and 1890 granted federally controlled land to states so that states could sell the land to pay for colleges. The institutions founded in this way were known as “land grant” colleges and universities. As land-grant institutions, these colleges were required to provide education or “extension” programs for citizens.
As Idaho’s sole land-grant institution, the University of Idaho provides the state’s extension services. These include research programs like the Parma Research and Extension Center, which focuses on production, storage and other crop issues.
Nearly all of Idaho’s counties have extension offices. The largest are in Ada, Canyon and Twin Falls Counties. Agenbroad and her colleagues are all U of I faculty members in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Extension’s many programs include small- and large-scale sustainable agriculture, Master Gardeners, 4-H, health and nutrition, personal financial management and more. The offices can often help with individual gardening woes, too.
• Ada County: 5880 Glenwood St., Garden City, 287-5900, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Canyon County: 501 Main St., Caldwell, 459-6003, email: email@example.com
Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, except holidays.
There is a wealth of information available on the websites, including lots of Idaho-specific gardening/landscaping information and helpful links.