USDA starts team to help beginning farmers, ranchers

USDA is starting a new team to better serve beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to name national and state coordinators to help new producers navigate existing programs more easily. Goals include training staff at the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency and at USDA Rural Development to help new producers conveniently access the agencies’ offerings.

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinators include Sarah Campbell, national; Denise Adkins, Idaho; Kathy Ferge, Oregon; and Cara McNab, Washington.

“We have been focused on helping new farmers and ranchers, and a lot of things are word-of-mouth,” Adkins, with the NRCS Idaho state office in Boise, said in an interview. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher program aims to “give a broader understanding of what each agency does and how it can help.”

For example, a farmer interested in an NRCS grant program that can help pay for an efficiency upgrade such as a new sprinkler setup could find out about it while interacting with another USDA agency, whether at a state or field office.

“Training is going to drive a lot of that,” Adkins said. In-house instruction is gaining momentum after being slowed by COVID-19.

NRCS Idaho spokeswoman Mindi Rambo said public outreach will follow, including preparation of educational materials available to people interacting with USDA, or participating in university extension courses or other agriculture events.

Need for a coordinated approach is driven in part by demographics, as the average age of a U.S. farmer increased by 1.2 years to 57.5 between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, which also said 27% of farmers had less than 10 years of experience.

FSA in Idaho also is involved in Beginning Farmer and Rancher training and outreach.

“There are almost 25,000 farm operations in Idaho, and of that, the number of producers age 45 and below is about 5,000,” FSA Idaho State Executive Director Tom Dayley said.

He said the state’s young-producer headcount rose nearly 13.7%, from 4,106 as of the 2012 Census of Ag to 4,668 in 2017.

“We are moving in the right direction clearly, but it still shows that we need to figure out a way to make it (farming) attractive, but once it is attractive to a younger person as a career choice, facilitate them to be able to make that choice,” Dayley said.

Adkins said NRCS in fiscal 2019 funded 166 contracts in Idaho to beginning farmers and ranchers, for about $5.3 million on 15,000 acres combined.

The group accounted for 45% of all NRCS Idaho contracts in 2019 and has generated 39% of applications so far in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Adkins, who has worked for NRCS since 2004, is joined on the Idaho Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordination team by Susan Smith, farm loan specialist with FSA; Anastasia Griffin, risk-management specialist with RMA, and Dale Lish, area director with USDA Rural Development.

Each state coordinator will develop beginning-farmer outreach plans, help employees to better reach and serve beginning producers, and be available themselves to assist in navigating programs.

Dayley said USDA in the new program wants to make sure personnel at the various agencies, working together, also can help young farmers and ranchers operate successfully after first accessing programs.

Young farmers say hardest part is finding land

Josh Norris, 31, is making his dream of farming a reality, gradually building his land base, controlling his expenses and doing custom farming on the side to bring in added income.

“This year, I made it a priority to seek out more custom work, and that seems to be a good way to try and cash-flow my operation,” the Caldwell, Idaho, farmer said. “That helps me grow — and pay for the equipment required to start up.”

Providing other farmers with services like planting, discing, roller-harrowing and plowing works for Norris because the 235 leased acres he farms are spread across six smaller parcels he must drive to anyway — and it helps him scout for land he can add to his operation.

“The land that comes up for lease for a beginning farmer is not the most high-quality ground,” he said. “I have given up lower-quality fields to pick up better ground, and that is just a constant process each year.”

Land: No. 1 issue
Land access is the No. 1 challenge facing farmers and ranchers younger than 40, according to a national survey. Participants in the National Young Farmers Coalition survey pegged it as the top issue regardless of location or whether they grew up on a farm or ranch. Land, and access to it, outranked all other concerns, including financial.

“And land access is the number-one reason farmers are quitting agriculture, and the number-one reason preventing farmers from getting started,” said Holly Rippon-Butler, the coalition’s land-access program director.

USDA’s newest Census of Agriculture “illustrates and illuminates the fact that farmers are getting older, and land succession and land transition are more and more of an issue,” said Rogue Farm Corps Executive Director Stu O’Neill.

The Ashland, Ore.-based nonprofit matches starting producers with experienced farmers and ranchers who mentor them. It helps new farmers find affordable land through innovative tools such as easements that can provide retirement income and reduce land costs. The organization also educates retiring farmers about succession planning possibilities that can open the door for younger farmers.

The organization provides new farmers with training and support, and is involved in farmland preservation.

Rogue in 2017 co-authored a study that found up to two-thirds of Oregon farmland is expected to change hands in the next 20 years as farmers retire. While that might provide an opportunity for a first-generation operator to take over a farm, it also has to pencil out.

“We have been exploring helping to facilitate farmland and farm business transactions outside the family,” O’Neill said.

Informal network
In southwest Idaho, Norris is part of an informal network of farmers who help each other. On a referral from farmer Spencer McIntyre, Norris planted a field for Miguel Villafana, who works for an ag lender full-time and recently started a small farm in the Wilder-Homedale area.

Also on a referral, Villafana worked with crop consultant Tad Baker.

“I work with a few young farmers, some bigger than others,” Baker said. “They do a pretty good job for the most part, and they’re not afraid to ask questions. A lot of the younger guys are willing to try new things.”

He has helped young farmers decide what to grow — taking soil samples, for example — and make the best use of ever-changing pest- and weed-control chemistries.

“It’s expensive to get started, and the other problem is that we are getting so many big farmers taking up so much land — it is really hard to compete,” Baker said.

Some landowners are willing to work with small-scale farmers, including leasing land to them, he said. Another option for the small producer is to grow a crop on contract for a larger grower who leases the ground, as he saw fairly often when he worked in Washington state.

Starting out
Norris, whose father is a farmer, started out by leasing 27 acres. Now in his sixth year, he is looking to add to his current total of 235 acres.

“It has almost been a necessity to try and pick up new ground,” he said. “I have just tried to get my name out there to neighbors and other farmers over the years, and I have gradually picked up a few more acres each year.

“When I started farming, I thought in 5 to 10 years I would be established,” Norris said. “I am seeing now that it is going to be a long, slow progression.”

After college, Norris in 2012 returned to the family farm to fill in for his father’s longtime farmhand, who retired. “In the course of one year, I went from part-time to full-time, and then trying to lease my own ground.

“When I decided to go on my own, it was my responsibility to find my own ground,” he said.

His wife, Melissa, who does not come from an ag background, keeps the books and helps move equipment from one field to another when needed. They have three young children — who at 2, 3 and 5 aren’t old enough to help, but “they try to,” Norris said. “They get to go on tractor rides once in a while.”

McIntyre, 31, for the past seven years has brokered commodities, mainly forage. He grows seed on his Marsing-area farm of about 200 acres, which he aims to expand threefold in the next two years.

But land availability “has been the biggest struggle, finding ground to lease,” he said. Though he grew up in a well-known farming family, “doing business on my own, people are still hesitant because they have done business with Joe down the street for 40 years, and he is doing just a good enough job to keep it.”

McIntyre has solid financial footing. “The problem is not as much financial as it is finding land,” he said.

“It is now extremely difficult to find just farmground, because of all the development,”  Villafana, 28, said, adding that he views capital as another hurdle for young farmers.

This year, he found land to lease: 21 acres on which he grew pivot-irrigated corn. He and his wife, Camas, also bought 33 acres including the 1-acre homesite they have lived on since April, financing the purchase through a lender other than his employer, by policy.

They leased the 32 acres of irrigated farmland to another farmer, “but we will be farming it next year,” said Villafana, who grew up working on a large potato farm in eastern Idaho. “This is really good farmground.”

A grain crop is likely for 2020, “but down the road, the dream is to grow potatoes for local processors, and sugar beets,” he said.

What to grow
Figuring out what to grow can be daunting even for an experienced farmer, McIntyre said.

“When no one else has tried it, you get nervous,” he said. “Or it’s different than the neighbor’s” crops.

Brody Miller, who coordinates the Idaho Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program, said land availability recently has been part of larger discussions about how newer producers can operate in an environment of continued low commodity prices.

Veterans on county Farm Bureau boards and YF&R committees can help newer producers with what to grow and how, and with operational viability, for example.

“Does it make sense financially to travel 50 miles to go irrigate?” Miller said. “Participants are very savvy, and very in touch with technology and best practices. At the small scale, you’ve got to be as efficient as possible.”

In addition to crop consultants, sources of advice include accountants and financial planners who specialize in farming, and small business development centers at community and four-year colleges around the region.

Complex decisions
Purdue University agricultural economist Michael Gunderson said that while capital constraints and asset-acquisition challenges are substantial, they aren’t unique to production agriculture and “are not as large as people would like to think.”

“As they get started, renting is an option — not just land but renting equipment, using used equipment, and partnering with others long-term on equipment,” he said.

Nevertheless, “farmer decision-making is more complex than it was a generation or two ago,” Gunderson said. “Today, our most successful farms are complex enough that they require CEO-type thinking.”

The Idaho Farm Bureau’s Miller said YF&R participation is consistently strong and is not subject to a headcount maximum. New and experienced producers thus stay connected and keep learning about starting, maintaining and growing ag operations.

O’Neill said Rogue Farm Corps, which operates in four areas of Oregon, in the past seven years went from serving a handful of students to offering 30 to 40 internships and apprenticeships annually on 15 to 20 farms. Over the same period, many other new-farmer training programs have also started around the U.S., through nonprofits and land-grant universities and their extension services.

Rogue mentors include older producers who are retiring and first-generation operators who want to pass along the knowledge experienced producers gave them, he said.

Norris said networking with producers and others in the industry is still the key.

“I absolutely would not be here if I weren’t willing to do that,” he said.

Pollinator Partnership CEO: Good work, communication must continue

Laurie Davies Adams likes the work she sees some farmers and ranchers doing to benefit pollinators, and believes it must continue.

“What would really solve the problem is right out there in those fields,” the president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership said in an interview at Vine and Branch Ranch outside Caldwell, Idaho, on June 22. “People communicating with other people and sharing their experiences — that is what is going to create the change.”

Many populations of bees and other pollinating insects are in decline for reasons including loss of feeding and nesting habitats, the group says.

Pollinators benefit when farms and ranches add or preserve pollinator habitat, and take care of soils, Adams said.

“We never lose sight of the fact that the farmer is here, raising crops and making a living,” she said. “But as good stewards, farmers want their landscapes and the soil to be as productive as possible. Pollinators play a real role in that.”

Many farmers in the Northwest and California are using pollinator-friendly practices, Adams said. Their experiences with soils, plants and pollinators can have a larger impact.

She was in Caldwell to wrap up National Pollinator Week largely because new Pollinator Partnership board member Ron Bitner, a local wine grape grower and bee scientist, aims to expand the organization’s Bee Friendly Farms certification program in the Northwest and California.

For the national awareness week, “I had the chance to attend a congressional briefing, or to come to Idaho to talk to alfalfa growers,” Adams said. “I made the right choice.”

Southwest Idaho’s abundance of seed and specialty crops, much of that bounty requiring pollination, was a draw, she said.

McIntyre Farms outside Caldwell uses no-till farming, and incorporates pollinator-friendly plants in cover crops and in premium pasture, farmer Brad McIntyre said. Goals include soil and animal health, and “to keep things blooming as frequently as we can” for pollinators.

Bitner said 400 to 500 species of non-honey bees have been identified in southwest Idaho. The total is about the same for southeastern Oregon, around 900 in California and 4,000 nationwide.

Pollinator planning is best done by ecological region rather than by states acting independently, Adams said.

“Regional activities always mattered, and they matter more now,” she said. “The whole chain of influence that starts here, these efforts are impacting agriculture everywhere.”

Western farmland continues to disappear

CANYON COUNTY, Idaho — Mike Somerville’s horse-hay operation between Caldwell and Marsing, Idaho, is surrounded by farms.

But like many others in the area, he’s concerned about a potential wave of development flooding the area with new houses and other uses.

“Our local officials need to be more sensitive to the values of agricultural land as compared to the developer, who just wants to buy land and develop it without any consideration of the land around it,” said Somerville, who is also a Canyon Soil Conservation District board member and a state Association of Soil Conservation Districts regional director.

Last month’s 2017 Census of Agriculture charts a 20-year decline in farmland across the Northwest and California. The drop is significant nationwide but in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, it is especially troubling.

Between 1997 and 2017, crop acres fell 13.7% in Oregon, 9.7% in Washington, 8.7% in Idaho and 13.2% in California. Nationwide, the average shrinkage was 10.9%.

During the same 20 years, the number of pasture acres dropped by 11.25% in Oregon, 17.4% in Washington, 7.6% in Idaho and 22.5% in California. Nationwide, the acreage was about even.

While those numbers are daunting, the shrinkage in farmland has slowed in some parts of the West.

For example, Marion County, the heart of Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, reported 9.7% fewer crop acres in 2017 compared to 1997. However, the trend reversed after 2012, and was up 8.7% by 2017 as more farmland was put into production for such crops as hazelnuts.

In Canyon County, Idaho, where Somerville farms, crop acres were down 9.5% from 1997 but are up 0.72% since 2012. Pasture acres fell 65.8% from 1997 to 2017.

Just east of Canyon County in Ada County, which includes Boise, Meridian and Eagle, cropland acres dropped 31.5% in 20 years but rebounded 17.6% between 2012 and 2017.

Defining farms
Part of the change in cropland can be attributed to how USDA counts it. USDA says a “farm” produces or sells at least $1,000 in agricultural products in the survey year, or would normally. Because of that, changes in the amount of land in farms don’t always directly equate to direct gains or losses of agricultural land.

The USDA also says enough agricultural activity can warrant categorizing land as farmland even though it doesn’t meet the $1,000 threshold.

Chris Mertz, director of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Northwest Regional Field Office in Olympia, said in Washington in 2017, 35% of farms reported sales of less than $1,000 but had enough ag activity to be considered a farm. The percentages were 31 in Oregon and 30 in Idaho.

Idle cropland and Conservation Reserve Program ground receiving federal government payments are considered farmland, as are animal and tree operations, he said. Government-leased grazing land is not, although cattle are counted separately. Also not considered farmland: pasture less than 100 acres lacking ag activity.

‘Hopscotch’ development
About 12 years ago, Somerville retired as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist for Arizona and bought his 40-acre, irrigated farm in Idaho.

Arizona allows agricultural land to be developed only if it adjoins a municipality. This is in contrast to “hopscotch” or “spot” development seen in parts of southwest Idaho for the past two decades.

“There have been 40-acre developments put in Canyon County with cropland surrounding the whole thing,” Somerville said.

NRCS, community planning groups and others have data about land characteristics ranging from soil quality and climate patterns to water availability. There is potential to tap it more, he said.

“Some land is more valuable as agricultural,” Somerville said. “But the prime land is also cheapest to develop because it has fewer limitations.”

His farm was wind-eroded when he bought it following years of low-residue crop production in sandy soil. Locally, he has also seen low-value crops planted on high-quality land. Typically, he said, that happens when a landowner is biding time before developing the land.

Preserving farmland
Farmers can help stem land loss by planting the right crops in the right places, Somerville said. This could narrow the gap between a parcel’s agricultural value and its development value, ultimately reducing the incentive for builders to buy extra land just because it is cheap.

As importantly, preserving farmland requires farmers and others to be involved, he said.

“We always say farmers are forced to sell,” Somerville said. “You are not forced to sell. You have to participate in this process with city and county government and with the whole community. We are not just independently out here farming. We are participating in a whole-community process.”

Canyon County Development Services Director Tricia Nilsson said an agriculture committee operating for the past 18 months has identified several agricultural areas worth preserving. The county will soon consider the committee’s input in updating its 2012 comprehensive plan.

“It fluctuates, but generally over 90% of the population growth is happening within city limits,” she said. “We do have a lot of growth, but we also have a lot of investment in agriculture and a lot more processing of commodities.

“One thing the ag committee is talking about is supply chain to our processing in Canyon County and elsewhere in Idaho,” Nilsson said. “It’s not land waiting to get developed. It is serving a huge economic purpose today.”

Other losses
Oregon Department of Agriculture Land Use and Water Planning Coordinator Jim Johnson said not all farmland losses are in urban areas. Land in farms in mostly rural Klamath County fell about 26% from 2012 to 2017 for reasons that include water shutoffs and drought.

Oregon land-use law aims to preserve farmland but is not a cure-all.

“A lot of people always look at conversion to be some some subset to urbanization, and that is true,” Johnson said. “But there are some 50 non-farm-related uses that can be approved in the Exclusive Farm Use Zone.” Energy generation and utilities, aggregate mining, golf courses, parks and other recreation uses are examples.

Some good news: “Oregon’s statewide trend is still land going out of production, but at a much slower rate,” he said.


OSU Malheur Experiment Station sets Farm Festival and Field Day

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor is scheduled to deliver the luncheon keynote speech during the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station Summer Farm Festival and Field Day, slated from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 10 at 595 Onion Ave., Ontario.

Station Director Stuart Reitz said Taylor is expected to talk about the future of agriculture, from new crops to what the next generation of producers will look like given that so many farmers are older.

“Where are they going to come from and how can we ensure they have viable, productive careers to hang in there with?” Reitz said.

Other scheduled events include an 8 a.m. drone demonstration by Jae Ryu of the University of Idaho; a 9 a.m. discussion about cover crops, potato irrigation and hemp; a 10:30 a.m. onion-production tour with discussions about nutrient and irrigation management as well as weed and thrips control; and a 1 p.m. hemp-production workshop and question session with Clint Shock of Scientific Ecological Services and Medicinal Botanical Seed.

Agency and vendor representatives will staff information booths.

“Obviously there is a lot of interest in hemp, and it is a new crop so we are just trying to figure out how to grow it,” Reitz said. A small hemp-growing trial is underway at the station.

Irrigation innovations and improvements remain a popular topic in the arid region, including electronically monitoring water usage and soil moisture, he said.

Drip-irrigating potatoes will be demonstrated. Reitz said drip irrigation for onions advanced and grew over the years, and “growers have been interested in seeing that expanding to other crops.”

Station Office Manager Jan Jones said the long-established event typically draws more than 200 people, including about 30 Boys & Girls Clubs youths who participate in hands-on activities.

State organic certifications increasing again in Idaho

After a long hiatus, the number of state organic farm certifications is again on the rise in Idaho.

Demand has been increasing for years, but the state Department of Agriculture in August 2017 had to stop accepting new applications so staff could focus on the organic program’s existing enrollees, who must re-certify each year.

After hiring and training employees last year, the department in January again began accepting new applicants.

“Interest in organic in Idaho continues to grow,” ISDA Organic Program Manager Gwen Ayres said.

Skylar Jett, trade specialist in ISDA’s Market Development Division, said the state ranks sixth nationally in organic acreage and is a top-10 producer of several organic products including barley, hay, potatoes, dairy products and hops.

She said the state as of mid-June had 337 certified organic operations. ISDA certified 249 — 241 in Idaho and eight in other states.

Ayres said ISDA is the largest of 15 organizations that certify at least one organic operation in the state. Food producers are certified to the standards of USDA’s Organic Program Rule regardless of certifying organization chosen.

“An organic farm in Idaho is held to the same rules as a farm in Oregon, Maine, Florida, etc.,” she said.

The 249 ISDA certifies compares to a current capacity of 280, including existing and new enrollees, Ayres said. There is some room for growth, as the department is working with just over 20 new applicants.

Capacity can change based on how many farms are entering or leaving the program at a given time, she said. Earlier, when ISDA was temporarily not accepting new applicants, the department offered a waiting list or information about other certifying organizations.

Ayres said ISDA in 2017 requested the state give additional spending authority for fiscal 2018. Two full-time staff were added. The organic program over the same period got additional part-time administrative support in cooperation with another division.

The organic program has been fully staffed since August, she said. Reopening it to new applicants marked the completion of new-employee training.

Organic Week, July 14-20, aims to inform consumers about this growing segment of food production while recognizing the contribution its producers and processors make to the state’s economy, she said.

Scheduled events include a consumer-geared overview by Ayres from 6 to 7 p.m. July 17 at Collister Library and a pollinator and beneficial-insect field day July 19 at Global Gardens, both in Boise. ISDA plans to connect with producers and sellers.

Nature’s Indulgence grows in value-added way

CALDWELL, Idaho — Spending the last several years making a name for Nature’s Indulgence in the handcrafted, small-batch granola and oat business suits Doug Sanders, who has spent his life growing, handling and preparing food.

He has customers and suppliers around Idaho.

“I love supporting Idaho,” said Sanders, whose parents grew up in fruit-growing families in the state’s southwestern region. “We grow so much. We export a lot. I would like to see things we grow in Idaho be sold in Idaho.”

Nature’s Indulgence buys all of its grains in-state. Sanders requires at least half of everything he sells to be produced in Idaho, well above a prominent local-food organization’s minimum. He does not use ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms.

“It’s a positive when an Idaho company uses another Idaho company’s product with a different perspective and in a different way,” said Megan Harper, commerce development analyst at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

The ISDA-administered Idaho Preferred program, which promotes Idaho food and includes Nature’s Indulgence among members, requires food and beverage processors to use at least 20 percent Idaho-grown content by weight.

Suppliers to Caldwell, Idaho-based Nature’s Indulgence include Highland Milling — which Doug’s father, Dave Sanders, owns in Bancroft, in southeast Idaho — The Teff Co. and Steele Apiaries in the Boise area.

A local oatmeal company and the Boise-based Albertsons grocery chain are among his many customers.

“He is unusual in that he was in the wholesale business first, and then segued to also be in retail,” said Jim Toomey, who directs the University of Idaho Agribusiness Incubator, where Nature’s Indulgence is based. “Usually it’s the other way around, if people get that far.”

Sanders, 29, graduated from the Northwest Culinary Institute in Vancouver, Wash. In 2012 he acquired Nature’s Indulgence, which family friends had started in their Utah home in about  2001. He moved it to Caldwell four years ago. Nature’s Indulgence now occupies 3,400 square feet.

“I have been designing the space all along to meet our needs and our customers’ needs,” Sanders said.

He said he employs part-time help now, and plans to add one or two full-time staffers over the next year “when I can pay them enough.”

Sanders said he aims to pay 1.5 times minimum wage, “realizing from experience that this type of work is physically demanding.” Idaho’s minimum hourly wage is the federal minimum, $7.25.

Small-scale cattle producers step onto bigger stage

The folks at the 21-cow Mi-Hud Angus Ranch in Kuna, Idaho, are taking their small operation to a much larger stage.

Owner Mike Relk and 10 of his fellow small-scale cattle producers in the greater Boise area are getting their genetically strong breeding stock in front of more prospective buyers via the internet.

The group put together the online High Desert Select Bull and Female Sale with help from JBS Auctions.

“It’s a way for the small producer to put together a number of bulls of high-quality genetics and market them,” Relk said. “It’s an opportunity for us to showcase our animals.”

The High Desert effort exemplifies the genetic gap narrowing between large and small breeders as technology and data advance. Big operators have more total chances to produce a breeding bull good enough to grace the pages of sire directories. But smaller players say they can also offer excellent genetics, in part by accessing these same superstar bulls through artificial insemination.

“We continue to improve our herd, through specific genetic matings, to have efficient cattle to bring to our customers,” Relk said.

Mi-Hud’s registered Black Angus cattle are bred from high-quality “AI” sires for calving ease, feed-to-growth efficiency and beef carcass traits. The herd originates from cows he acquired five years ago from a large Idaho breeder known for strong genetics.

“I was comfortable with the quality of the cattle right off the bat, but for the small producer, there is no platform to market these good genetics,” said Relk, who historically made most sales through word-of-mouth or advertising.

The online auction, which opened for viewing Jan. 4 and closes at 1 p.m. Mountain Feb. 25, “is a way for the small producer to put together a number of bulls of high-quality genetics, and market them,” he said, adding that the format also figures to provide “true price discovery.”

Eligible animals pass parentage-verification and breeding-soundness tests. Buyers can purchase insurance on bulls for the breeding season, and share that cost with sellers.

“I promise you, somebody from Butte, Mont., doesn’t know about the bulls we have in the Treasure Valley,” Relk said. “This gives them an opportunity to look at the genetics we have.”

Zach Raptosh, a cattle producer and veterinarian in south Nampa, Idaho, said he expects the group to field about three dozen bulls in the auction. All will be DNA-tested to give buyers confidence about parentage.

“Every bull in our sale is sired by some of the industry’s top genetics,” he said. “We are all really passionate about cattle. We are all aiming to be progressive breeders and to raise animals that are in the upper echelon of the breed.”

Thanks to available techniques such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer, “I may only have 25 cows, but my top 10 percent of calves are as good as anybody else’s top 10 percent,” Raptosh said. “That is what we are striving for.”

Dennis Boehlke, who runs about 65 mother cows south of Nampa, has been artificially inseminating all of his cows since 1979. He maintained strong genetics by consistently seeking the best sires.

Many Angus breeders run seven to eight head, he said.

“Some of the better-known bulls over the years have come out of small herds,” Boehlke said. “A good one is a good one is a good one, no matter where it comes from.”

For the small operator, online sales can be more convenient and less expensive than live auctions, he said.

Relk, who has six bulls in the sale, said organizers of the High Desert online auction aim to hold the event annually.

Seed cooperative grows in a regional-by-design niche

Snake River Seed Cooperative is bigger than its compact spread in a northwest Boise neighborhood might indicate.

Founder and self-proclaimed “seed freak” Casey O’Leary likes it that way. But she describes the organization’s recent growth enthusiastically.

“A lot of people are becoming interested in where their seeds come from,” she said. A growing contingent wants to learn about saving seeds, the subject of an instructional booklet Snake River sells.

Snake River Seed Cooperative, now in its fifth year, is adding to its grower base while increasing the number of seed varieties it has available. The volume of sales to end-user customers also is rising.

As the world’s seed industry consolidates, “more people are waking up to the idea that it is scary to have your food security in the hands of a handful of corporations,” O’Leary said. “So the demand for ‘seeds with a face’ — produced in your area by someone you trust — is increasing.”

More people are gardening, including a rising percentage in the millennial generation, which bodes well for continued solid demand, she said.

Operations Manager Reiley Ney said Snake River offers around 320 varieties.

“It seems like we add about 30 every year,” she said.

O’Leary said 36 family farmers produced seed for Snake River this year, up from 29 a year earlier.

The cooperative’s farmer-suppliers produce a wide variety of seeds in and for the Intermountain West — from sugar snap peas and zucchini to carrots, Zinnia flowers and various heirloom seeds. They use organic practices to grow seeds for mostly home gardeners and small-scale farmers in the region.

Cooperative-member suppliers range from home gardeners to larger farms, O’Leary said. Some are commercial growers of pea and bean seed. All must use organic practices under the cooperative’s rules.

End-user customers, including those selling at farmers’ markets, range from home gardeners to growers who occupy several acres. They use low-input approaches and want locally adapted, non-genetically-modified seeds that produce a good crop and good seed for replanting, she said.

“When you save a seed in a certain place, it becomes more adapted, year after year, to that place,” O’Leary said.

Because Snake River’s seeds were started in the region, they tend to grow better and with less care in its arid environment compared to seeds that originated elsewhere, she said.

The benefits of growing with local seeds, and saving them, extend beyond suitability to local conditions, O’Leary said.

“This is our local economy,” she said. “Most all of the seeds you buy on a nursery shelf have been brought in from somewhere else. By buying locally grown seeds, you are supporting your local farmers and your local economy.”

The cooperative this winter is starting a seed saver’s club designed to help bridge experience gaps between longtime and newer producers while providing educational and collaborative opportunities for all, O’Leary said. Participants pay $100 annually and receive new online content every month.

“It also offers them the opportunity to support the work the co-op is doing,” she said.

Snake River sells at some 35 retail stores in the Intermountain West. O’Leary, who earned a horticulture degree at Boise State University, previously was growing seeds on her own small farm — now one of the cooperative’s suppliers.

“We want there to be a greater diversity of locally grown seeds here, so we can have more interesting diets and more productive gardens,” she said.

Treasured Sunrise Acres dairy goes goat-only

Treasured Sunrise Acres, since late April a solely goat-sourced dairy after selling its Jersey cows, is growing its revenue — from milk and from a non-GMO feed grain venture.

The Parma, Idaho, business sells goat milk and its own formulation of feed. Milk and feed segments continue to grow strongly, largely on consumers’ increased interest in healthy foods, owner Debra Jantzi said.

“The grain business was started last year, in the summer, and after we sold the cows, we had time to devote to it,” she said. “So it started really expanding.”

The feed mix is consumed by the goats on-site or sold to small-scale owners of animals and chickens, and to breeders. The business is building a larger grain mixer.

Annual revenue from goat milk increased each year since the business was certified to sell raw milk in 2010, Jantzi said. “And we are seeing a huge expansion in goat-milk demand.”

More consumers buy goat milk for health reasons lately, including some who are allergic to cattle dairy, she said. “It is a very broad customer base that buys goat milk in Idaho.”

Jantzi and her nine children founded Treasured Sunrise Acres. Expansion has been a consistent theme.

Before they sold about eight Jersey milking cows and seven replacement heifers earlier this year, they were raising additional replacement goats. Recently they have been grazing 158 goats. In mid-September, with kidding in full swing — the business sells some of its baby goats — headcount was around 170.

Treasured Sunrise has plenty of room to expand the goat herd and will do so as demand warrants, Jantzi said. The business offers raw and pasteurized goat milk.

The Jantzis started the business on a leased Fruitland site of six acres but soon moved to 53 irrigated acres off U.S. 95 in Parma. There, they increased the barn’s square footage by around 50 percent, adding milk processing and storage areas as well as an office. Outside, they added pasture, fencing and other improvements.

Jantzi took out two USDA Farm Service Agency loans, one for the property purchase and the other for improvements. Financing totaled $300,000.

“We wanted to grow and could not on our own,” she said in an FSA news release. “This family-owned dairy has provided my children a lifestyle where they can be together, develop their skills and have fun. The operation is fluid, constantly changing and adapting.”