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Clen and Emma Atchley grow crops while preserving the environment

Some people believe farmers stand in the way of protecting the environment, but there are growers out there working to preserve the land and the nutrients in it.

“A lot of people see farming as a detriment to the environment, and we disagree,” said Clen Atchley, a grower in Ashton, Idaho.

Farming Operations

The Atchley’s Flying A Ranch, owned and operated by Clen and Emma Atchley, is in eastern Idaho at the headwaters of the Snake River. They grow between 800 and 1,000 acres of seed potatoes on their 5,000 acres, and depending on the year, sell between 200,000 and 250,000 sacks of seed potatoes. Their biggest crop is wheat, but the Atchleys also grow canola, alfalfa and grain, and they have a small cattle operation. About 4,500 acres of their land is irrigated.

The Atchleys grow mostly russet potatoes, with the bulk of their crop being Russet RB-70, Ranger Russet and Alturas, although they grow some numbered varieties off the Premiere Russet line. Most of their seed is sold to Idaho growers, with Washington state growers making up the rest of their customers. The Atchleys are part of a marketing group, but Clen said most of the seed is sold directly to farmers or other seed growers. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the customers are repeat customers.

The Flying A Ranch, a farming and growing operation, is just one of the Atchleys’ businesses. They sell greenhouse-grown seed minitubers under the company name Ashton High-Tech Seed, and Clen runs a first-generation growing operation. Emma said they were looking at how their companies were organized, and might be changing the structure soon.

During the harvest, the Atchleys employ about 35 people, but the rest of the year it’s just the Atchley family. Clen and Emma’s daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Clay Pickard, work on the farm, too.

“They do almost everything,” Emma said. “They help with all aspects of the operation.”

But Emma said she didn’t know if her daughter and son-in-law would want to take over the farm some day.

Atchleys have been farming in eastern Idaho for more than a century. Clen’s grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1901, but because of volcanic rock he was only able to clear an acre or two a year. To support his family and the farm, Clen’s grandfather would guide settlers through Yellowstone Park. It wasn’t until 1920 that Atchley started growing potatoes in Ashton. Clen and Emma still own the property that Clen’s grandmother grew up on, and they own the property that his grandfather homesteaded more than 100 years ago.

Emma doesn’t have the same storied farming background. She grew up in Boise and hadn’t worked on a farm until she married Clen.

“We made a pretty good farmer out of her,” Clen said.

The volcanic rock that took Clen’s grandfather so long to clear is also what makes the area great for growing. Clen jokes that what makes good farming soil is a volcano and about 300,000 years. So, in a few hundred thousand years, the area should be even better for farming.

Ashton has been known for seed potatoes since the early 1900s.

“It always had seed potatoes, so it’s not been exposed to the nematodes and pests that other areas have,” Emma said.

The high elevation and shorter growing season also help alleviate pressure from pests. But the Atchleys are concerned about the spread of mosaic virus in seed potatoes, spread by aphids. To reduce the chance of infiltration, they have a scouting, IPM and border crop regimen. They’re also on the lookout for potato cyst nematode. The quarantined counties infested with PCN are only 70 miles from their land, so they’ve had the USDA test each of their fields for the nematode to confirm that they’re negative.
Their pest prevention regimen also helps the Atchleys reduce the amount of chemicals used on their farm, which they say is a vital part to keeping the land healthy and not harming the environment.

“We do everything we can to minimize the use of pesticides,” Emma said. “We do everything we can to make it a better farm and not ruin the ground.”

Environmental Stewardship

The Atchleys started an environmental stewardship program about 20 years ago to protect the land they live on and the outdoors they enjoy. The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is well-known for trout, and the Ashton area is a habitat for a variety of wildlife.

“We live in an exceptionally beautiful area and we have an extraordinary environment and ecosystem,” Emma said.

The Atchleys have implemented some environmentally friendly initiatives in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and some they’ve done on their own. NRCS is a department of the federal government that works with landowners to conserve soil, water and natural resources, according to the agency’s Web site. To prevent erosion, they’ve stopped farming on steep ground. The Atchleys have planted more than 4,000 trees along one stream, a program that was specifically designed to feed wildlife.

Clen said it was interesting to see how the animals responded to their environmental programs. He said in the areas where they’ve cleared sagebrush, he’s seen more deer and elk, and birds are more prevalent – most noticeably the sharp-tailed grouse, a bird that nests on the ground and is on the threatened species list.

“It’s good for us and it’s good for the environment,” Emma said. “We do it because we want to leave it better than we found it. And I think we have.”

Their efforts have been recognized twice in the last two years. This year, they were awarded the Environmental Excellence Award by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI), and in 2005 the National Potato Council recognized them with the Environmental Stewardship Award. They are particularly proud of the recognition from the commerce and industry association, because it was strictly voluntary. Farmers always have some environmental standards they have to follow, but IACI recognized their efforts out of all Idaho businesses.

IACI rates companies based on their environmental practices, pollution control, recovery from waste streams, conservation, sustainability and other achievements, according to the association’s Web site. Nominees for the 2006 award included Albertson’s supermarket in Boise, AMI Superconductor, Dell’s customer service center in Twin Falls, and Potlatch. Past winners of the environmental award include Albertson’s supermarkets, Basic American Foods, Monsanto and Hewlett Packard.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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