Business Insider

Beyond potatoes: Idaho crops now mean caviar, bullfrogs and yak meat

Leo Ray, who owns Fish Processors of Idaho in Hagerman, has been producing caviar from his sturgeon for years.
Leo Ray, who owns Fish Processors of Idaho in Hagerman, has been producing caviar from his sturgeon for years. Twin Falls Times-News

Potatoes are huge in Idaho. Everyone knows that. The state leads the nation in potato production. The late J.R. Simplot got the Legislature to put “Famous Potatoes” on our license plates, and he made a handshake deal with Ray Kroc to supply french fries to McDonald’s. We know. Anyone who doesn’t know that is no Idahoan.

Dairy is even bigger in Idaho than potatoes in revenue: $2.3 billion in 2016, compared with $851 million for potatoes, according to the University of Idaho. No surprise to Idahoans there either.

And there’s plenty of beef for dinner. Idaho cattle and calves brought in $1.7 billion in sales in 2016. OK, maybe we didn’t know that beef was twice as big as potatoes. Now we do.

But who knew that fish farmers in Hagerman produce sturgeon eggs placed in tins and sold as caviar? Or that a Twin Falls college professor raises bullfrogs for use in research? Or that yaks grown in Northern Idaho produce a lean alternative meat to beef and chicken?

Overall, nearly 200 crops and animals are raised in Idaho, from barley to cauliflower to goats to rhubarb. (Plenty of the latter in my editor’s backyard each spring. Too sour for my taste, but it’s pretty good in pies.)

Here’s what you probably never knew:

Precious Idaho-farmed caviar

Hagerman fish farmer Leo Ray says many people who consume his caviar — at wholesale prices of $1,000 for a 1,000-gram tin — don’t know where Idaho is. And that’s fine with him, as long as they appreciate the salted sturgeon eggs produced by his Fish Breeders of Idaho.

“I haven’t eaten too much caviar other than our own, so I’m not too good at comparing our caviar to everybody else’s, but my customers have, and they all tell us that we are producing the best caviar that is being produced on a farm anywhere in the world,” Ray told Lacey Darrow of KIVI-TV.

Ray started out using the Magic Valley’s geothermal water to raise catfish. He later started the first successful tilapia farm in the United States. In 1988, he began raising sturgeon, both for the eggs they produce and for their meat.

It takes about 10 years for a female sturgeon to begin producing eggs, Ray told Heather Kinnison of the Times-News. A female sturgeon can carry a half-million eggs weighing up to 17 pounds.

For a decade from 1992 to 2002, Ray raised alligators. They were processed for their meat and hides. That venture ended when the company learned alligators can carry the West Nile virus.

A bullfrog stays cool between a couple of lily pads on a hot day at the M.K. Nature Center in Boise. Bullfrogs are not native to Boise but sometimes are found in the wild. Steve Rivas raises bullfrogs in Twin Falls for use in research. He warns his customers not to release them into a nonnative area. Idaho Statesman file

Bullfrogs more than just a pond amphibian

Bullfrogs fascinate Steve Rivas. Always have. On an office wall, he keeps a poster showing the life cycle of a bullfrog, a poster he made when he was in elementary school.

A graduate of the Technical Aquaculture program at the College of Southern Idaho, Rivas turned his hobby into a career. Cindy Snyder, writing for the Times-News in Twin Falls, tells how Rivas started out expecting to sell bullfrogs as pets or for use in ponds. Soon, however, medical researchers became his biggest customers.

“Bullfrogs have qualities in their skin, eyes and ears that make them ideal subjects for research on hearing loss, nerve damage, Alzheimer’s and cancer,” Snyder wrote.

Raising bullfrogs isn’t much different than raising fish. “Water and nutrition are key for growing both,” Snyder wrote.

A yak mother with her 5-month-old calf. John Flavell The Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky)

Largest yak producer in Northern Idaho

Taylor Ranch Yaks in Athol raises animals more at home in Himalaya, Tibet, Mongolia and Russia than Idaho. Owner Lynn Taylor considered raising llamas when he first moved to Northern Idaho in 1989, but that animal’s popularity was waning.

Cows were too much work, he told Erica Curless of the Spokesman-Review, something he learned growing up on a Southern Idaho dairy farm. He saw an ad for yaks in Kalispell, Montana, drove there to check them out and brought five home.

Today, he’s the largest yak producer in Northern Idaho. Not that it’s a big market. Curless wrote there were an estimated 10,000 yaks in the United States, compared with more than 89 million beef cattle.

Yak meat, lean and dark red, has less than 4 percent fat, compared with 24 percent for beef and 9 percent for chicken.

One yak in particular, Makloud, a 1,140-pound bovine, is Taylor’s favorite. He rides the animal in the mountains, rides in a cart behind an ATV and comes inside Taylor’s home for dog treats on the couch.

“Neighbors are accustomed to seeing Taylor, 69, ride Makloud on the local roads near Farragut State Park, usually bareback and using nothing but a halter around the animal’s nose and a lead rope as a rein,” Curless wrote. “Taylor lets just about anyone ride Makloud, especially children. He even dared the UPS driver to take a ride.”

Ronny Ruize trains hops vines with a crew at Obendorf Farms near Parma in 2016. Darin Oswald

Idaho overtook Oregon

You may be aware that hops — that all-important ingredient in beer — are grown in Idaho. But did you know that Idaho overtook Oregon last year as the second-leading producer of hops behind Washington state?

Idaho harvested 6,993 acres last year, up more than 2,100 acres just since 2015. The crop was valued at $69 million.

Gooding Farms began in St. Paul, Oregon, near Salem and then moved to the Parma and Wilder area in 1945. The Idaho operation began with about 40 acres and now encompasses 863 acres, where the family operation grows more than 15 varieties, Diana Gooding told Sarah Jacobsen of KBOI-TV.

A slowdown in craft beer sales has some industry analysts wondering whether a hops glut will occur. Prices have fallen, according to the Financial Times: Popular Cascade hops that were trading between $6 and $7 a pound in 2015 and 2016 were on the market earlier this year for $1.20.

That’s not a hop. That’s a tumble.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell.