Asian Approach: Michael and Marie Heath
rotate a wide variety of crops to both open up niche
markets and limit pests.
Heath went to Malaysia and the South Pacific islands as part
of a church program to help farmers improve their production
practices. It didn’t take many months of Heath’s
10 years abroad to realize the Asian approach had merits.
A young farmer who had gone to the University of Idaho to
study “modern” agriculture, Heath received an
eye-opening crash course in farming without chemicals.
“I went there as a farm adviser, but I learned a lot
more than I taught,” Heath says.
Working with Chinese farmers who had relocated to Malaysia,
Heath was fascinated by their integrated approach to raising
crops and livestock for small markets. “They showed
the importance of community, working together and creating
farming systems,” he says. “Since I was also familiar
with research in integrated pest management, I became convinced
that we need to work with nature instead of trying to control
Heath adopted that as his guiding principle when he returned
to farm in Idaho. With his former in-laws on their farm, he
grew grain, sweet corn and hay and began trying to grow the
latter organically. He imported ladybugs to help control aphids
rather than the standard spraying and began better managing
Throughout the 1980s, Heath rented more parcels, increasing
his farmed acreage from his former in-laws’ 200 to his
current 450. He began growing potatoes organically on some
of his irrigated acres. When market prices dipped, he added
other vegetables, becoming one of the first Idaho growers
to raise squash.
Focal Point of Operation —
Heath grows an array of crops and, in keeping with his plan
to maximize profits, markets those in many ways. Raising potatoes,
specialty beans, tomatoes, winter squash, alfalfa, dry beans,
sweet corn, wheat, barley and hay not only opens up niche
markets, but also helps limit pests that thrive on a single
food source. Indeed, Heath has made crop rotations the cornerstone
of the farm operation.
Heath is different from other Idaho farmers because he grows
mixed vegetables on two acres and raises cattle and chickens
to earn extra income and provide soil fertility. “I’m
a firm believer that diversification in crops and markets
is the only way a farmer can survive in agriculture these
days,” Heath says. About 90 percent of his operation
is certified organic.
If rotations in general are key to Heath’s management
of pest and soil fertility, then alfalfa is the linchpin.
Every five or six years, Heath rotates his crop and vegetable
fields into an alfalfa crop, which he leaves for two or three
His rotation spans about seven years: alfalfa hay for at
least three, followed by a row crop like potatoes, beans or
sweet corn, then a year of wheat or barley. In year six, Heath
plants another row crop, follows with a year of a grain, then
rotates back to hay. Each year, he grows a variety of vegetables
too numerous to list — 12 different kinds of squash
on 20 acres, for example.
Heath sells wheat organically to a national wholesaler and
barley as malt to a national brewery. In a symbiotic relationship,
Heath sells hay to area dairies and receives compost along
with payment. Some of Heath’s potatoes, grown annually
on 20 to 40 acres, go directly to the processor, but many
of his high-value “fresh packs” — Yukon
golds, yellow finns and russets — are sold to direct
The farm supports a healthy number of beneficial insects,
and Heath keeps predators guessing with the long rotation.
The exception is managing the devastating Colorado potato
beetle. Heath grows potatoes far from previous potato plots
– or lets five to seven years elapse. With the University
of Idaho, Heath is fine-tuning his rotation to better control
the beetles, growing winter wheat after potatoes to confuse
the beetles with a tall canopy. Occasionally, Heath sprays
with a biological control. In the last 15 years, he has used
Bt four times.
Weeds pose the greatest challenge. Heath cultivates before
planting and just as the crops emerge. If weeds are persistent,
he hires hand-weeders during the June peak.
Heath runs his cow/calf operation on permanent pasture not
suitable for growing crops. While he raises the herd organically,
he doesn’t sell the cows for a premium for lack of a
USDA-certified processor. Instead, he sells the yearlings
on the open market —after retaining some for the family.
The chickens roost in a hen house and have regular access
to a one-acre pasture, where they spread their own manure.
They eat organic wheat in addition to grazing. To guard against
predators, Heath’s dog spends most nights in the hen
house. A local processor slaughters the birds, then Heath
sells frozen poultry directly to local customers.
Many of the commodity crops ship to wholesalers in California,
Oregon and Washington or are sent to market via brokers. Marketing
directly to different outlets gives Heath a chance to explore
more profitable opportunities. In a unique arrangement, Heath
partners with five other farmers to provide produce to a CSA
group in the Sun Valley, two hours away. The enterprise, which
provides farm “subscriptions” to consumers who
pay an up-front seasonal fee, offers farmers a guaranteed
Heath grows a share of the crops, serves as the drop-off
point for his partners, then trucks the bounty each week to
the tourist-frequented Sun Valley. Delivering to the group
of about 80 members affords Heath access to farmers markets
and to three small grocery stores. He times his trips so the
activities dovetail. Finally, Heath sells some of his crops
to a consumer co-op in Boise.
“The CSA works well because I don’t have the
time to grow some of the specialty crops that others do,”
he says. “I participate in the farmers market on the
same day — and supply some retailers — and make
only one trip.”
Travel is required. Heath’s small town of Buhl doesn’t
provide a big enough — or interested enough —
market for organic produce. At least for now, although Heath
hopes to interest local grocery stores in some locally produced
“I hate the idea that the food I sell to wholesalers
is shipped to California or Utah and then shipped back to
Idaho,” he says. “I would like to sell more food
regionally and directly to local markets. My direct markets
are most profitable, but we have a small population.”
Economics and Profitability
Heath makes the most profit from organic specialty potatoes,
dried beans and squash. Selling under an “organic”
label has made a big difference, particularly with the year
2000’s basement-low potato prices. That year, a hundredweight
sold for just $2 and $3, even though a grower’s costs
are closer to $4 or $5 per hundredweight, Heath says.
“If it wasn’t for the organic markets I have,
this year would have been really, really difficult,”
Heath says. “Everything we grow in Idaho has taken a
By contrast, his fresh pack potatoes sold for $14 for a 50-pound
box. Specialty potatoes such as Yukon Gold and reds bring
an even higher premium; Heath can earn up to $18 for a 50-pound
Heath’s organic system requires more labor —
and more costs associated with that labor, particularly during
potato and squash harvest. He usually hires three full-timers
for the full season, with that number jumping to 10 during
harvest. Most of the workers are local and have spouses who
work nearby; about three-quarters of them have worked for
Heath for years. A three-year average of Heath’s farm
expenses shows that he spends 41 percent of his annual costs
on labor. Heath continues to monitor his budget and strives
to open new profitable markets.
“Every year, we look at our profit and loss statement
and find a lot we can improve on,” he says. “But
we’re doing OK.”
To build soil fertility, Heath incorporates compost, both
from his hen house and the local dairies that buy his hay.
He rarely applies any additional nutrients or minerals, instead
opting to grow nitrogen-fixing legumes like alfalfa before
heavy nitrogen feeders. Heath tries to maximize his organic
matter and uses conservation tillage to slow erosion. As a
result, Heath’s soil tests at about 3 percent organic
matter, compared to a county average of about 1 percent, something
he attributes to his alfalfa-heavy rotations.
To minimize pest damage, Heath has devised rotations that
confound insects. For example, he controls wire worms, which
tend to build up in grass crops, through rotation with non-grass
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Heath employs up to 10 workers a year, and says he provides
them a fair return for their work. “We distribute our
income well — we put food on the table for a lot of
people,” he says.
Heath has built valuable relationships with three other farmers
in south central Idaho, with whom he cooperatively sells to
the CSA and other markets. Regular contact with customers
has served to build a healthy connection between farmer and
“Start small, go slow and don’t bet the whole
farm on anything new,” Heath says.
When transitioning to organic, producers should consider
growing hay first. “You come out with the best soil
to get started, the easiest ability to use compost and stop
using pesticides,” he says.
Heath plans to try to get even more local with his products.
With his core group of peers, Heath is trying to get their
produce in local grocery store chains. He also is involved
in trying to get the local farmers market into a permanent
“In Idaho, it’s tough to talk about a local food
system,” he says. “But we’re talking to
Albertsons, and we’re starting to get a toehold.”
--Photograph by Karen Murphy