1969, 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 it.”
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 crop rotations.
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 — Diversification
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 years.
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 markets.
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
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 spring payment.
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 products.
“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,
“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 hit.”
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 box.
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
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 crops.
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
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 food buyer.
“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,”
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 building.
“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.”