Farmer goes from volunteer to co-owner

BOISE — Until he started working on a farm, Alex Bowman-Brown often questioned the value of his previous jobs, which included a variety of occupations.

“I always kind of questioned every job I’d done. Was there really a point to me doing it?” he said.

But then he volunteered at an organic farm about seven years ago and that questioning stopped.

“Farming wasn’t something I could question the meaning of,” said Bowman-Brown, 35. “It’s essential. Food is something that everyone needs. It’s also a way for me to be a land steward and do something that benefits the community, and I can’t question the value of it.”

After working on several organic farms during summers in Montana and Washington, Bowman-Brown moved to the Boise area in 2015 and began working at Peaceful Belly Farm, an organic operation in the Dry Creek Valley just north of Boise.

After a year, he and two other farmworkers employed there decided to start their own operation, Fiddler’s Green Farm, a small certified organic farm that grows garlic, flowers and vegetables on 6 acres just down the road from Peaceful Belly.

The farm grew 180 types of vegetables last year.

“It’s a huge, diverse array of mixed vegetables” that requires a spreadsheet to keep track of, Bowman-Brown said.

Their products are sold at the Boise Farmers’ Market, directly to Boise restaurants and at the Boise Co-op. They also have a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Bowman-Brown co-owns the farm along with Justin Moore, a Vermonter who has worked on several organic farms around the country, and Davis McDonald, a native Boise resident who has a background in wholesale flower sales.

Nampa farmer Janie Burns, president of the Boise Farmers’ Market board of directors, said the three are a great example of young farmers who put in their time on the farm and then struck out on their own when they saw a niche opportunity open up.

“I think it’s wonderful that a group of young farmers saw a market and are using their professional skills to bring some really beautiful vegetables to the valley,” she said. “It’s a great example of young people kind of doing their time learning the craft and then striking out with fingers crossed.”

Bowman-Brown said the trio felt confident there was a local market to support their dream but admitted that starting their own farm involved a good dose of chance.

“We knew that the market in Boise was pretty open and we knew we could probably sell stuff but we didn’t know how well it would work,” he said. “It was definitely a big risk.”

He said their goal is not necessarily to become bigger but to get better at what they’re doing now.

“Instead of getting big, we want to get real dialed in and make it a well-oiled machine,” he said.

Washington’s organic manager a natural fit

As a college student Brenda Book took a summer job at an organic herb farm in Iowa and that’s the root cause for why she manages the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s organic program.

She grew up on what she describes as a “typical Midwest farm” — corns, soybeans, hogs, cattle. “I did all the stereotypical Iowa farm girl activities,” she said.

She was studying botany at the University of Iowa and the summer job at the Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa, was her introduction to organic farming, and she’s never left the field. She began as an intern in WSDA’s organic program in 2002 and became the manager in 2011.

And, yes, she eats organic food.

“I do support our farmers,” she said.

Growing sector

Book, 41, works with a sector of agriculture that has been growing in sales, and rules. Washington was a pioneer in certifying organic farms and in the beginning, in 1985, the regulations fit on a notebook-sized piece of paper.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 authorized federal standards. “It’s way more than an 8 1/2-by-11 piece of paper now,” Book said.

WSDA enforces the federal standards and constantly updates a list of approved organic inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. The current list has more than 1,000 products and takes 75 pages.

At stake is the virtue of what the USDA reports is a fast-growing industry. U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.6 billion in organic products in 2016, a 23 percent increase over 2015, according to a USDA survey released in September.

Growth in Washington sales was a modest 1.5 percent, but the state still ranks third in sales, $636 million. It was far behind No. 1 California, close to No. 2 Pennsylvania and comfortably ahead of No.4 Oregon.

The lull in sales growth may be temporary. The number of certified organic farms grew by 11 percent to 677 and the number of organic acres increased by 8.8 percent to 78,739.

“We’re seeing that growth because (organic farmers) are having success,” Book said. “It’s a sign of the strength of the industry.”

Help available

In addition to certifying organic operations, WSDA has a program to help farmers convert to organic production. It’s voluntary and costs a few hundred dollars, but it’s meant to help growers stay within the rules during the mandatory three-year transition period.

“We do it as a customer service, so you’re not out there on your own,” Book said. “We can’t get involved in telling you how to do things, just if what you’re doing is meeting the requirements, and we can help lead you to resources.

“It gives you the opportunity to work with us throughout the process,” she said. “So when you get to the year you want to establish yourself as organic, you’re not caught off-guard by something you did two years ago.”

The big danger is applying a chemical not approved for organic production. That resets the clock.

“The application of prohibited material, there’s not really a way to mitigate that,” she said.

On other aspects of organic production, such as buffers from conventionally farmed fields, the rules are more flexible, she said.

Some fields may be ready for organic certification, even if other fields aren’t, she said.

“A lot of farmers worry, ‘Am I going to pass?’” Book said. “We rarely deny certification on the first go-round because it’s a process. There’s back and forth. There’s dialogue.”

In November, Book gave back-to-back presentations at a conference in Vancouver organized by the Tilth Alliance, a group focused on organic agriculture.

About a dozen people attended the first workshop, which was on the transitional program. “A service that is often under utilized throughout the state,” Book said.

‘Organic’ pot?

The next workshop was on organically certifying marijuana. Attendance quadrupled, and the room got crowded.

Washington was a pioneer in legal recreational marijuana. In that pioneering spirit, the Legislature approved a proposal by WSDA to certify organic marijuana farms.

WSDA has just started to develop the rules. Interest appears keen. WSDA plans to start certifying organic marijuana in 2019. If so, Washington likely will be the first state to have certified organic marijuana.

The first rule with organic marijuana will be to not call it “organic marijuana.” The USDA has a lock on “organic” to describe food produced in a certain way. Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, Washington will need to come up with another word or term to signal to users that their marijuana is organic.

“The industry needs to come up with a term that they want that means the same thing,” Book said. “The term has to be something the industry is behind,”

Organic retailers already make advertising claims about having “organic” marijuana.

“There are a lot of claims that are happening out there now,” Book said. “We are protecting the organic claim.”

USDA plans to withdraw organic livestock, poultry rule

USDA announced on Dec. 15 it intends to put an end to a new rule dealing with animal handling practices for organic livestock and poultry, saying the rule exceeds its statutory authority.

Fully supported by the Organic Trade Association, which largely developed the rule, and the National Farmers Union, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule has drawn staunch opposition from conventional livestock groups.

 That opposition has shelved implementation of the rule twice after the new administration put an initial, temporary hold on it – as well as any new regulation – after Trump took office.

Now set to get the ax after a public comment period, the rule would have added new provisions for livestock handling and transportation for slaughter and avian living conditions in organic production. It would also have expanded existing requirements for livestock care and production practices.

The Organic Trade Association issued a statement of dismay on USDA’s intention to withdraw the rule and vowed to continue to fight for its implementation.

“This groundless step by USDA is being taken against a backdrop of nearly universal support among organic businesses and consumers for the fully vetted rules that USDA has now rejected,” OTA stated.

And USDA’s latest action might not be the final nail in the coffin.

OTA filed a lawsuit against USDA in September in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking judicial review of the administration’s earlier delays. It amended its complaint last week to include the November delay.

“We will continue our fight to uphold organic standards … we will see the department in court and are confident that we will prevail on this important issue for the organic sector,” OTA stated.

National Farmers Union is disappointed with USDA’s decision, saying the rule would improve the consistency and integrity of organic livestock practices and labeling.

“We urge USDA to find a solution that provides certainty to family organic producers and integrity to the organic label,” said Rob Larew, NFU senior vice president of public policy and communications.

The National Pork Producers Council was also quick to issue a statement, saying the rule would have incorporated welfare standards that weren’t based on science and outside the scope of the Organic Food Production Act, which limited organic considerations to feeding and medical practices.

“We’d like to thank Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration for listening to our concerns with the rule and recognizing the serious challenges it would have presented our producers,” said Ken Maschhoff, NPPC president.

NPPC raised a number of problems with the regulation, arguing that animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of “organic.”

It also cited the complexity the standards would have added to the organic certification process, creating significant barriers to existing and new organic producers.

Fewer conventional livestock and poultry groups have commented on this latest round in the organic rule saga. But the opposition has also included the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Association of Egg Producers and National Milk Producers Federation.

They’ve opposed the rule on several fronts, saying the proposed practices aren’t based on science but aimed at consumer perception and threaten both animal and human public health.

They’ve contended the rule would be costly, impractical and ill-advised and its requirements for outdoor access could lead to the spread of animal and avian diseases, resulting in consumer mistrust of their products.

They also contend the organic program is a marketing program, which legally does not include animal welfare. Some are also concerned the rule would set a precedent that could be used by activist to push unscientific restrictions on all animal agriculture.

The beleaguered rule was first propose in April 2016, finalized in the final days of the Obama administration and set to go into effect March 20 of this year. That implementation was delayed by Trump’s executive order putting a hold on any pending regulation, pushing implementation to May 19.

USDA delayed that implementation until Nov. 14, and in November pushed implementation to May 14, 2018 — citing policy and legal issues in both instances.

Learn how to start your own sustainable farm

Cultivating Success and the University of Idaho Extension are accepting registration for a course designed for new and aspiring farmers.

The course, consisting of three classroom sessions and at least two farm tours, is being offered at Extension offices in Bonners Ferry, Caldwell, Driggs, McCall, Kamiah, Moscow, Sandpoint and Weiser. It begins with a webinar Jan. 8, followed by three seven-hour workshops on Jan. 13, Feb. 3 and March 3.

The cost of the course is $115, which includes all materials and tours.  Spouses, partners, or additional adult family members can take the course for an extra $35 but will receive only one copy of materials. Additional youth family members can take the course for $5.

Registration is required by January 6th, 2018 so that participants can receive pre-workshop content and further instruction.

Click here to register and read a more detailed account of the course.

Farming with Mother Nature

PESCADERO, Calif. — Dede Boies says the road from growing up on the East Coast to operating an organic farm on the Northern California coast was long and winding.

“After college I wanted to learn more about growing food so I signed up for a world-wide work exchange program,” she said. “Host farms offered room and board in exchange for working on the farm. I learned about vegetable farming on the big island of Hawaii and in New Zealand I learned about raising animals.”

Boies began searching the Bay Area for a farm, preferably one owned by a nonprofit educational organization.

Her quest came to fruition in 2013 with Root Down Farm.

“The 62-acre farm is owned by the Peninsula Open Space Trust,” she said. POST protects and cares for open space in and around the Silicon Valley south of the Bay Area. Since it was founded in 1977, the nonprofit has protected more than 75,000 acres in three counties.

POST sent out a request for proposals for new tenants, and Boies’ proposal was accepted.

“I raise chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs,” she said.

The ranch is certified through Animal Welfare Approved, a program with rigorous animal welfare and environmental sustainability standards designed to ensure animals live in “a state of physical and psychological well-being” from the pasture to the slaughterhouse.

“All the animals have their unique challenges, but I would say the Standard Bronze turkeys are the hardest to raise,” she said. “They grow slower and are incredibly curious animals that really push the boundaries.” They reach maturity in seven months.

Customers order their birds online and pick them up at the farm the weekend before Thanksgiving, she said.

She also raises New Hampshire, Delaware, Barred Plymouth Rock and Red Ranger chickens — all heritage breeds. They eat bugs, grubs, and grass on the pastures, and Boies supplements their diet with organic grain.

“My mission is to humanely raise the healthiest animals possible while working within the ecosystem to responsibly steward the land,” Boies said. “The farm focuses on the strong genetics of heritage breed livestock to ensure the animals grow at a normal rate while thriving outside on pasture.”

Marcy Coburn is executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit that is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. She recognized Boies’ contributions to the organization’s farmers’ markets, which are three days a week at the Ferry Plaza on the Embarcadero in San Francisco and once a week at Jack London Square in Oakland.

“Dede Boies and the ranching she is doing are incredibly important to the future of agriculture in California,” she said. “Boies is a part of the next generation of young farmers who carry the legacy of our pioneering organic farmers to care for the land, conserve natural resources and bring healthy food to our tables week after week.”

Boies sells at the CUESA farmers’ market, Coburn said, and educates customers “about her hands-on, and humane, animal livestock operation.”

She also hosts tours and educational events at her farm.

Boies said business is bustling but there are challenges to working in California agriculture.

“Weather — the intense dryness last year and a huge amount of rain earlier this year,” were difficult to deal with, she said. Also, “farmland is becoming cost-prohibitive. Farms have been lost to developers and parties that can afford the high prices.

“Predators are a problem because we live in their backyard,” she said. “We have to find a balance with Mother Nature and the most humane way to work in the ecosystem.”

Entrepreneurs encourage others to find a need in ag and meet it

ORLAND, Calif. — None of them grew up on a farm, but five entrepreneurs are providing crucial services to growers across the country.

One has found a way to provide wireless connectivity to rural farms. Another is developing self-driving retrofit kits for tractors. Others help farms manage data and control pests.

Their advice to would-be start-ups: Find a need that isn’t being met and meet it.

“I think the farm of the future is clearly going to have more information derived from data to help make decisions,” said Brandt Bereton of the Salinas, Calif.-based Tailwater Systems, which developed a compact system to take nitrogen out of water. “And hopefully it’ll be a little gentler on the environment.”

Tailwater is one of numerous start-ups that have received help from the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which opened in Salinas two years ago to provide work space and other resources for entrepreneurs in agriculture-related fields.

Western Growers, which assists and advocates for produce growers in California and Arizona, received a $30,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation in 2016 to operate the center. Its amenities have helped entrepreneurs develop products and services that help growers save water or labor, compile and use crop data and meet other needs.

Western Growers leaders thought it was important to invest in innovation and technology, said Dennis Donohue, the center’s consulting director.

“We decided there needed to be a physical manifestation” of that investment, Donohue told attendees of the second annual North State Innovations in Agriculture conference Nov. 7 at the Glenn County Fairgrounds.

From left, Ignio Cafiero of Bear Flag Robotics, Eyal Amit of FieldIn Technologies, Jason Schwenkler of California State University-Chico, Bill Moffitt of Ayrstone Productivity and Dennis Donohue of Western Growers take part in a panel discussion on agriculture-related start-up businesses Nov. 7 at the Glenn County Fairgrounds in Orland, Calif.


The center offers basic office amenities such as a desk, phone and internet access as well as the ability to network with other companies and collaborate on projects. When choosing start-ups for the center, Western Growers looks particularly for companies developing solutions related to food safety, automation and water management, Donohue said.

“Those were the primary things we were looking at,” he said.

The center’s work comes as the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a nonprofit organization recently won a $500,000 grant to develop a separate network for agricultural entrepreneurs.

The money will go toward cultivating the Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurs, which goes by the acronym VINE. It will link businesses with mentors, advisers, collaborators, events, competitions and other services, according to the UCANR’s website.

Tailwater’s Bereton was one of five representatives of recent start-ups who joined Donahue in a panel discussion at the Orland conference. The others were Bill Moffitt of the Minnesota-based Ayrstone Productivity; Eyal Amit of the Israel-based FieldIn Technology; Ignio Cafiero of Bear Flag Robotics in Palo Alto, Calif.; and Manu Pillai of San Jose-based WaterBit inc.

Also participating was Jason Schwenkler, director of the Geographical Information Center at California State University-Chico. The center was established in 1988 to introduce geographic information systems technology to Northern California.

Mapping and data collation are at the heart of many advances in agriculture, the panelists said. For Cafiero’s Bear Flag Robotics, the technology enabled the business to develop a system that could convert a grower’s existing fleet of heavy equipment to self-driving.

“The idea is that you can orchestrate your tractors from your phone or tablet,” he said.

Moffitt’s Ayrstone sets up outdoor wifi hubs that enable better automation, he said.

“We’re not solving people’s problems,” he said, “but we’re providing an underpinning for people to solve problems. Over time they’re going to see their problems through a new prism.”