FRUITLAND — Growth can be seen all around the Western Treasure Valley, even as the mercury continues to indicate triple-digit days ahead. It comes not only in the form of newcomers to the Western Treasure Valley, but also what’s growing in the local ground.
The topic of the Fruitland Chamber of Commerce’s July luncheon was the state of local agriculture, and how local farmers are working to not only change how food is grown, but how the public chooses it. Several farmers and marketers of their products spoke, as those in attendance enjoyed local cuisine by the Boon Farm to Fork mobile kitchen.
Following is a sample of remarks given by today’s speakers, chosen by chamber president Krista King.
The main thing Kelly Henggeler, a third-generation operator of Henggeler Packing in Fruitland, told attendees about the challenges facing him and fellow fruit growers was, “It’s hot.”
Henggler described the area’s growing climate as being similar to Fresno, California, where many of the fruits he grows are also grown.
“The crops are growing, we’re trying to keep them wet,” said Henggeler. “We grow a lot of plums and peaches … I’m not that concerned, but it’s certainly hot out there and the plants are stressed. I think in the fall, our big concerns are probably labor.”
Henggeler noted that he has worked with the Department of Corrections in Boise to fill labor needs, utilizing low-risk offenders.
“They’ve been working out of our facility for a couple of years, out in the field,” he said, noting he works with Idaho Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to source those workers up to seven months each year.
Brenda Kittle is in charge of social media marketing for Henggeler Packing. Henggeler said part of Kittle’s challenge is helping customers find where their farm is, in order to try their produce. He noted that many clients had been in the area for years prior before discovering them.
Kittle said one major challenge in the past has been keeping up with the influx of products she works with.
“Last year, it seemed like every week I had a new brand,” Kittle said, noting she focuses much of her marketing effort in the months of August to January.
“It was kind of hard to keep track of what’s going on and people coming in.”
Despite this, Kittle still plans to market new product this year, including apple cider in October.
“We’re trying to get some dehydrating going,” she added. “We’re not quite there yet, but it’s in the process.”
Kittle also shared about her baking efforts, like baking asparagus bread for the recent Asparagus Festival in town.
“You wouldn’t know it was asparagus bread; It’s how I get my husband to eat it!”
Fruitland native Jordan Gross, a former offensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers football team, now owns Little Buddy Farm in Fruitland, along with his wife, Dana. They partnered with Emran Chowdhury, executive chef of Alavita in Boise, to start Boon Farm to Fork to offer visitors cuisine designed to waste “almost nothing.” Chowdhury now buys produce from Gross as part of the collaboration.
“We bought our farm from the O’Dells in ’05, and my father-in-law who works at the Oregon State Ag Research Station in Ontario, Joey Ishida, he grew alfalfa for us for a number of years,” said Gross. “When I got done playing, we always knew we wanted to be back … I hated gardening and all that when I was a kid, but we just got the itch.”
In addition to growing seasonal produce, Gross also has 65 acres dedicated to cattle grazing for the Desert Mountain Beef Co-op.
“I don’t know if we ever want to have our own beef. Maybe,” but Gross said he’s open to the idea if it can contribute to the health of his farm’s soil and crops.
Although Gross and his family raise their produce organically, his farm is not presently certified as organic. He notes that those who come to Fruitland’s Farmer’s Markets on Wednesday nights may find occasional bug bites in their produce but it is still safe to eat.
“People come out and they’ll pick a cucumber and be like, ‘Do we need to wash it?’ No man, just down the hatch!”
Gross said his farm produces on a small scale purposely, and works to employ high school students. He said four students presently work for him on a 3/4 time basis.
Gross also offers a community supported agriculture program, a subscription service offered to locals to encourage year-round consumption of his produce. He also said he brought the idea of having the weekly farmer’s market to the Fruitland City Council for its approval.
Gross notes that the current heat wave challenges his operations, too, with weekly planting and constant attention to moisture levels to ensure crops grow.
“The neat thing is educating people about availability and flavor. I won’t grow kale anymore after probably this week or next week, because it doesn’t taste as good as it does in the winter.”
He notes that growing spinach presents a similar challenge, as it turns out tasty in the winter but not in July.
After studying at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Bailey Myers took on the role of marketing representative at Owyhee Produce.
“It’s my family’s farm; My grandpa started it in 1954, and then we started packing our own onions … I feel like it was forever ago,” said Myers.
Her aim has been to combine hospitality and tourism with the agriculture industry, and to educate the public on where their food is typically sourced.
Prior to attending university, she toured the state of Oregon to educate people about the topic of food sources and found that most had no clue where their food comes from or what it takes to grow it.
“They don’t understand how much labor can go into something like that,” said Myers. “I was blown away that people didn’t understand that, and it’s kind of disheartening.”
But after that experience, Myers turned that lesson into a passion for educating the public on where food, clothing and other products come from and how they’re made. She said the challenge is making it fun for them to learn about these things.
“When I went to school, I told all my professors, “I know what I want to do, I just need a degree.’”
Myers now holds a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, having studied hospitality, tourism, entrepeneurism and agriculture education.
“I wanted to be able to come back to the community and tell people, ‘Let’s go, let’s teach people, but teach them without them knowing,” she said.
For Myers, supporting the means by which food and goods are produced are at the heart of teaching people about them.
“When we buy something that is shipped in internationally or grown in a way that we would maybe not be proud of, we’re voting for it,” she said. “Every dollar you spend at a grocery store is your vote for how it is produced.”
Myers said she offers public tours to educate people on new crops whenever they are planted at Owyhee. She adds that part of helping producers and retailers meet and work together is networking one with another.
“As a community, it’s really our job to take time to search out for people who may have an idea but they’re missing one part of the puzzle … and that [piece of the puzzle], you might know but they don’t know.”