Rotating cattle provide whole-farm fertility for dry beans and veggies at 7-year-old Ernie's Organics

Fred and Judy Brossy grow irrigated beans, potatoes and wheat on the arid plains of Idaho. Most of their crop is pre-sold, at a premium, ensuring a decent livelihood for them and their workers.

By Henry Homeyer

Organic beans with gravity irrigation.

SLIDESHOW: Fields and field days
Organic in Idaho


Farm at a Glance

Fred and Judy Brossy
Ernie's Organics
Shoshone, Idaho

Size: 300 acres

Location: South-central Idaho, near Shoshone

Certified organic since: 1996

Primary crops: winter wheat, potatoes, dry beans, vegetable seed crops, hay

May 5, 2004: Fred and Judy Brossy have been farm managers on the Bryant Ranch in south central Idaho, just outside of Shoshone, for the past 20 years. Eleven years ago they began transitioning to organic production, becoming certified in 1996. They have been using the name "Ernie's Organics" for their operation since 1997.

Of the Bryant Ranch's 1800 acres, about 300 are irrigated. Last year Ernie's Organics raised 65 acres of wheat, 40 acres of pinto and red beans, 15 acres of potatoes, and 120 acres of hay and forage crops. Additionally, they had an acre of asparagus, a quarter of an acre of carrots for seed, a half an acre of sweet corn for seed, and 8 acres of green beans for seed. Most years, Fred runs about 65 head of cattle from April to October, fattening them up for another organic farmer. Judy Brossy takes care of most of the office work for Ernie's Organics, and has two greenhouses and a garden plot for raising vegetables and cut flowers for sale at farmers' markets.

I worked for the Brossys as a farm hand for three weeks in the summer of 2003, staying in their house and learning about organic farming for a book I'm writing. Fred and I worked side by side, and spent countless hours talking about the best way to farm—not only to pay the bills, but to grow healthy food, enrich the land, preserve the environment, and do well by their employees.

Shoshone lies in an arid plain that depends on irrigation for growing crops. The soil is good, and winter snows in the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains refill the water table, lakes and streams. Irrigation has been a way of life for farmers here for over a century. Each farm has an allocated amount of water, and the date that a farm first joined the water distribution system determines who has priority. The land Fred and Judy Brossy farm has been a part of the water system since 1883. Even so, Fred worried last year that his water would get shut off before the beans were finished growing. He was lucky, and he brought in the crop.

Water costs are a considerable part of the year's expenses: the Brossys spend about $15/acre to buy water and an average of $30/acre for the electricity to run the pumps. They use gravity irrigation as well as pivots, hand-lines, and wheel-line irrigation, so the water costs vary considerably from field to field.

Building soil

The Brossys build soil fertility in several ways, but use no bagged fertilizers, not even ones approved for organic use. Primarily they enrich the soil by rotating it into perennial grass and alfalfa pasture, grazing cattle on the fields for up to six or eight years before returning the land to arable production.

It's Fred's belief that something should always be growing on every inch of the farm. He plants winter wheat shortly after potato harvest, and uses peas as a late-season cover crop when not planting wheat. Even though they will winter-kill, the peas can fix some nitrogen, keep weeds from getting established, and add organic matter to the soil.


"Smell that. Look at the soil. See the earthworms. This is what organic
farming is all about."

-- Fred Brossy

Fred uses portable electric fences to move the cattle to fresh feed daily. For the 65 cattle he grazed last summer, that meant expanding the pasture each evening by about an acre, leaving the previously-grazed areas available also. Too many cattle on a field, Fred says, will compact the soil and damage the perennial grasses. He tries to keep 60,000 pounds of live weight per acre of irrigated pasture, and has a handshake deal with another farmer who pays him 30¢ for each pound gained by the yearling cattle. In addition to the cattle, Fred uses some of his 120 acres of pasture to produce hay that he sells to horse owners.

After being in pasture, the land goes through a 4-year crop rotation including one year in beans. A typical arable rotation would be potatoes-winter wheat-beans-winter wheat, then back to pasture. The rotation varies so that the potatoes can be grown as far as possible from where they've been grown the year before, and to take into consideration the best way of irrigating a crop.

Another significant component in maintaining soil fertility at Ernie's Organics is the use of compost. Dairies have become big business in Idaho, and some of these have gone into compost production, so Fred is able to buy as much as he needs. He adds about 2 tons of compost per acre each year at a cost of $15/ton. Fred figures it's money in the bank.

Labor and land

One of the aspects of Ernie's Organics that struck me as remarkable was how well the hired hands are treated. Fred employs three Spanish-speaking workers, all of whom are year-round, salaried employees. They are given free housing on ranch land and they get health insurance. In return, the farm hands are highly loyal, hard working and good at what they do. Unlike other farms I've visited, Fred doesn't have to tell each worker what to do. Two of the three have been with him for 20 years. They know what has to happen, and they do it.

In the winter, the farm hands work on the farm machinery, much of which is old, or putter around the farm getting caught up on chores like fixing fences. They don't necessarily put in 40 hours a week during the winter months, but they know that at harvest time--or when weeds are growing like mad--they'll put in a lot more than 40 hours. There is no time clock, which suits Fred and his workers just fine. Labor costs on the farm are about 30 percent of the operating budget.

Fred and Judy have more flexibility in determining what benefits and pay to offer their workers because the land they farm belongs to an absentee owner who understands that with the Brossys' stewardship the soil has gotten richer and the land more valuable. The owner, who bought the property two decades ago, lives in California and visits just once or twice a year. He has not demanded that the Brossys pay him a specific annual return on his investment, which gives them wiggle room in bad years. "The land can only sustain so much return," Fred pointed out. "People working the land need fair compensation. Some years it's tough to do that and still give a fixed return to the owner. Corporate agriculture generally wants a certain return on investment, which forces some farmers to cut corners. Basically conventional agriculture depends on fossil sunlight—petroleum—for fuel, fertilizer, and transportation. The energy is all derived from the photosynthesis of plants long ago. Ultimately a heavy reliance on petroleum is not sustainable. We work hard to be as sustainable as possible."

Managing weeds and pests

The Brossys manage weeds on two scales: in the short term, through persistent cultivation; and in the long term, through crop rotations. Last summer we weeded the beans with Fred's 1947 Farmall tractor pulling a 4-row cultivator. Fred uses a Lilliston rolling cultivator to get early weeds in his potato fields. Wheat fields are harrowed before the crop emerges to get the first flush of weeds. Failing to do that would result in weeds that "would haunt you the rest of the year," according to Fred. Once the wheat gets tall enough it will out-compete most weeds. Canada thistle can be a problem if it gets established, however.

In Fred's view, pests of any kind are less of a problem in a diverse ecosystem. Pests for one crop are not pests for another. "The Colorado potato beetle, for example, is an ally when growing beans. They eat the nightshade weeds, leaving them skeletonized."

Due to a labor shortage--I wasn't able to adequately replace the experienced farm hand who was on sick leave--the weeds got ahead of us in one field of beans. They got too tall to clear out with the cultivator, so Fred and I and the two other farm hands had to hoe a six-acre field by hand. It was a high value crop as these were beans for sale as organic seed. We used long-handled hoes with heavy heads that we kept razor sharp, but it was still slow work. Canada thistle, pigweed, and wild geraniums were the dominant species.

When a field gets too weedy, Fred will seed it in grasses and turn it into pasture or hay. Perennial weeds lose their vigor, he explained to me, if cut three times for hay each summer. Some weeds the cattle won't eat, so he makes a pass with a mower after the cattle are done with a field. This also keeps the weeds from going to seed.

Although most insects are not a major problem for Fred, the Colorado potato beetle is one he has worked hard to keep under control. Each year he tries to plant the year's potatoes as far from last year's field as possible. He has used Bt, and recently has had excellent success with spinosad. "It's so effective it's almost scary," Fred said. "But you have to be very careful how you use it--the beetles develop resistance so easily."

In Fred's view, pests of any kind are less of a problem in a diverse ecosystem. Pests for one crop are not pests for another. "The Colorado potato beetle, for example, is an ally when growing beans. They eat the nightshade weeds, leaving them skeletonized." Fred also noted that when the federal government mandated aerial spraying for the whole area for grasshoppers in 1985, everything got out of balance, creating worse problems.

Recently, as part of a school project, two teenagers have been coming out to the farm to raise beetles that selectively attack spotted knapweed. They raise the beetles in net tents and then release them, monitoring the effects on the weed population. This is typical of Fred--he's open to new approaches, and welcoming to people who want to use what the ranch has to offer.

Although late blight in potatoes is a problem for some conventional farmers in Idaho, Fred has never had a problem with it. "We water at night to mimic dew. The hot winds dry out the leaves during the day, which minimizes the chance of infection," he said.

Making connections, including sales

Experimenting with Compost Tea

Fred Brossy is always on the lookout for any new technology that might increase his yields or efficiency. Last summer he attended a day-long seminar conducted by Dr. Elaine Ingham, the guru of aerobic compost tea. Ingham promotes compost tea to increase fertility and biological activity in soils, and as a way for plants to fight off attacks by fungi, such as those that cause blight in potatoes.

Fred decided it was worth a try. Cautiously optimistic, he decided to buy tea from Magic Valley Compost, a local firm that has invested in the equipment and training needed to prepare it properly. This seemed better than investing in a brew tank and learning the nuances of tea production.

After the wheat harvest last August, Fred disked the stubble twice and then had Magic Valley apply tea at the rate of 10 gallons/acre (at $2/gal) through a center pivot irrigation system. After that, he irrigated the field once a week for the rest of the season so that the microorganisms would stay active and help to break down the stubble. Fred is not yet convinced that the tea made a big difference, but it's too early to tell.

Part of the success of Ernie's Organics has been a good marketing strategy. Fred usually pre-sells his crops, and does not store them. When we harvested the wheat crop last summer, conventional wheat was selling for $2.85 a bushel, but Fred had sold all of his at $5.50. Although we loaded the wheat from the combine into his storage bins, trucks from Washington state were there to take the harvest away within two days of harvest.

All of Fred's organic potatoes, 200 tons, were sold to Kettle Chips in Salem, Oregon. Again, Fred got a premium price, about $10 a sack when conventional spuds were selling for $5. His beans went to Amy's Kitchen and Eden Foods.

Oftentimes last summer (after a long hot day in the fields) Fred would somehow find the energy to study after we were done. He was working on a bachelor's degree in agroecology from Prescott College, and recently was awarded his degree. He was able to design his own course of study and to make the coursework relevant to his own work as a farmer.

Like any farmer, however, Fred gets tired and worn down, too. Being an organic farmer and having a network of friends who are also organic farmers has been important to Fred and Judy. They aren't working 6 or 7 days a week just to get a pay check. They believe that organic farming is important not only for the high quality food they produce, but also for the greater environment. Their commitment to treating everyone--and every part of the environment--with respect and caring is central to who they are.

One of my favorite memories of my time on the farm was riding in the wheat combine. The driver, a conventional farmer from a neighboring farm, was amazed at what Fred had done without herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. He looked at how clean the fields were, and what great yields Fred was getting. He looked at me and shook his head. "Fred should be proud," he said. "I don't know how he does it, but he should be proud."

I had to agree.

Henry Homeyer is the author of "Notes from the Garden: Reflections and Observations of an Organic Gardener" (University Press of New England, 2002). He writes a weekly gardening column for a dozen New England papers and is a regular contributor to the New York Times.