at a Glance
Fred and Judy
Size: 300 acres
Location: South-central Idaho, near
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.
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
"Smell that. Look at
the soil. See the earthworms. This is what organic
farming is all about."
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
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
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
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.