Produce. Rows of waxed, chemically enhanced fruits and vegetables made to withstand thousands of miles of travel and weeks between the vine and the vendor. They look good, but if I had a nickel for every time I've been disappointed by a grocery store banana, I'd have enough money to fly to Brazil and pick one myself. Why? Americans like strawberries in January and bananas 365 days a year. Consumers are accustomed to having whatever they want whenever they want it, even if it comes at the price of nutrition and with the added dangers of pesticides, preservatives and high prices. People have forgotten the rhythms of the Earth, the seasons and climates that rule the harvest. Where farmers once gave back to the soil, they now have no choice but to overuse it just to keep up with demand, and shoppers perpetuate the cycle with every banana they buy (unless, of course, they live in Rio).
It's a grim picture, and for most people, something that seems about as real as the tooth fairy. They don't have the time or money to be conscientious about groceries, let alone tilling the soil and planting for the apocalypse. Besides, all that organic mumbo jumbo is just another expensive, overrated way for yuppies to distinguish themselves from the rest of us ... right? If you agree, try a strawberry grown in someone's garden without the use of pesticides. They're smaller and lumpier than what you see at most grocery stores, but fruit raised in good soil and given the time to mature naturally has a sweetness that must be tasted to be understood. The skin is taut and shiny, and the combination of delicate flesh and nectar could make a gal swear off the store-bought kind for life-that is, until she gets a craving in the off-season. The question is, is having your shortcake and eating it, too, worth all of the consequences?
A new generation of microfarmers says no. Some are retirees, others are hobbyists, and many work other jobs so they can take the short growing season to do what they love. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has redefined them nine times since 1850, going from "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products are sold" to anything grossing less than $250,000 from the sale of crops and livestock. By that definition, nearly 90 percent of Idaho's 25,000 farms are "small," half of which are 49 acres or less.
"Idaho and the U.S. will and should always have big agriculture, but it is healthy to have agriculture on the other end of the continuum, too," says rural sociologist J.D. Wulfhorst of the UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. On the Fresh Direct Web site (a resource for local growers), Wulfhorst states that this balance "helps ensure a healthy diversity and supports the desires of people who want to see the face of a grower when they buy their food." Even within the community of small farmers, there are distinctions. The USDA splits them into four categories: primary occupation farms, limited-resource farms, residential/lifestyle farms and retirement farms, all of which blur together to include people like Marcia Woodbury, Connie Ward and Mary Rohlfing.
Marcia Woodbury is the sales manager for the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. She is also the reigning queen of basil. Raised on an Illinois farm, Woodbury spent countless hours helping her mother and sisters pick fruit, vegetables and herbs from their garden. It was a family affair, and she never forgot the experience of savoring something she had helped to grow.
"When I was first married, we moved to California. I planted tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini-just to have that taste," Woodbury said. "Then I moved to Boise, and we had four seasons again." She wasted no time in cultivating some of her favorite edibles, including 30 basil plants. "I wondered what I was going to do with it all-you can only make so much pesto!" Woodbury exclaimed. So she called some friends at local restaurants, and after one taste, they were sold. Woodbury soon learned how to weigh and package her basil and now tends about 100 plants every April that supply several restaurants during the summer. The extra cash goes toward Woodbury's dream trip to Tuscany, but her true motivation is as simple and sweet as her product. "It's very relaxing for me to garden. It's peaceful. I pop in Andrea Bocelli, my three cats hang out and I pick basil-it takes the worries out of my busy, hectic job," she said. "If people don't buy it, I give it away. It's not my livelihood; it's just fun."
For Connie Ward, fun and profit go hand in hand. She and her husband Bill are the faces behind Grannie's Farm, a local company that provides the Capitol City Public Market some of the best fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in the valley. They are both in their early 60s, and though she still works a "day job" and her husband recently retired, Ward admits that downtime will do little to slow them and their 12-year-old microfarming business down.
"The dirt just seems to draw me," she said.
Ward wasn't exactly sure what a microfarm is, but she assumed correctly that her one-half acre garden on an acre and a half of land qualifies. It has two greenhouses for starter plants and late-season items, and the open ground is filled with myriad herbs, edible flowers, tomatoes, peppers, gourmet lettuces, okra and any other growing thing. The Wards got into the business when a friend saw their garden and mentioned that they ought to sell some of their homegrown goods. Their first stint at the public market went better than expected, but each time they upped the ante, adding new items, becoming certified organic, making sure Grannie's always had something fresh.
It was through this process of reinvention that Ward learned how difficult it is to tend an organic garden. It requires superior soil and commitment to getting rid of pests the hard way for the sake of the ecosystem and the health of her customers.
"Good soil is rich with microorganisms and minerals, and when everything is working together in a symbiotic relationship, things grow really well," she said. "You don't keep it healthy by using it, throwing chemicals on it and using it again. All those pesticides and hormones kill the natural organisms in the soil that makes it what farmers want it to be." Ward blamed such practices for antibiotic resistance, the severely decreased mineral content of commercial produce and the fact that consumers have become so spoiled. But she understands that change is difficult and simply hopes that microfarms like hers might make a dent in what is becoming a vicious cycle. "Believe it or not, I'm not a rabid environmentalist-just somebody who grew up growing things," she said. "I see the difference and I know the difference. We do what we do because we feel it's the best extension of the generations before us. We've lost a lot trying to make everything faster and easier; now we need to slow down, simplify and enjoy."
Mary Rohlfing is doing just that. Pulling up to her small farm cradled in the cliffs off the Warm Springs Mesa, you would never guess she hasn't been doing this all her life. From the rows of raised beds to the cluttered greenhouse to the new hatch of Khaki Campbell ducks, Morning Owl Farm looks like it has been churning out fresh herbs and veggies for years, but it was only one year ago that Rohlfing gave up her job as associate professor of communications at Boise State.
"I had to stop thinking about money and start thinking about being part of what I do, feeling like it matters," she said. So she read every how-to book she could get her hands on, and her personal gardening bible turned out to be Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. "There are organic gurus everybody quotes, but this guy made things sound very simple, straightforward and easy. I did everything he told me to do, and it worked," Rohlfing said.
Her new schedule is seven days a week, 8-10 hours a day from February through October, and Rohlfing hopes to do a little all-season growing in her new greenhouse. At the moment, her summer crops are spoken for by a list of subscribing clients, and more and more inquire all the time about her personal delivery service of the freshest selection of seasonal vegetables, herbs, duck eggs, heritage turkeys and more. She is working on growing honeyberries, hardy kiwi and a North American banana-like plant called a Paw-Paw.
"These are all neat things that used to grow here, but we've gotten so standardized," Rohlfing said, agreeing with Ward that Mother Nature should dictate what and when we eat. She talked about the thoughtless annihilation of useful pests, the greenhouse gases that come from soil manipulation and the unhealthy physiological affects of preservatives. "The most political act you can make is choosing how you eat," she said. "Food transforms us. What you put in your body affects the rest of your day-the rest of your life-and the more you handle your food (planting, harvesting, cooking), the better your life will be."
A 1998 study by the USDA suggests, "Small farms contribute more than farm production to our society." It is Marcia Woodbury's meditation, Connie Ward's passion and Mary Rohlfing's alternative to tenure, not to mention the prize of people who have realized we really are what we eat. So the next time you pick up a banana in the grocery store, think about where it came from-I'll give you a nickel.
Community Supported Agriculture:
U-Pick Roadside Stands:
Idaho Organic Growers:
Nursery Site for Horticulture Professionals:
U of I Sustainable Agriculture and Small Farms:
USDA Small Farms: