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Variety of markets builds organic acreage in Idaho

Organic potatoes account for only 0.4 percent of retail potato sales, but in 2007 the segment grew by 30 percent. There are more markets available for organic spuds, but it’s been slow building.

Mike Heath of M&M Heath Farms in Beuhl, Idaho, grew his first 20-acre plot of certified organic potatoes in the mid-1980s, but the first years weren’t profitable. He didn’t have customers willing to pay the added premium for organic produce. He didn’t give up on them, but the following year he cut back the acreage and focused on growing markets for his products.

Heath now grows, organically, 16 varieties of potatoes on 50 acres. He farms an additional 450 acres that he uses for rotation. Of those acres, 140 are dry beans, 130 are alfalfa or other kinds of hay and another 100 acres is grain, either wheat or barley. The rest of the acreage is devoted to winter squash, making M&M Heath Farms the only organic squash grower in Idaho.

Heath needs a variety of rotation crops because his rotation schedule is longer than what is ordinarily used in conventional farming. He typically waits five to seven years between potato plantings so that the field has time to restore its nutrients and to reduce insect and disease pressure.

“I think it’s really important organically that we have a pretty diverse product base,” he said.

Product diversity not only helps make the rotation, it also provides some buffer in case one crop fails or there isn’t a market for another. The range of crops keeps him busy, and Heath said when the weather prevents him from working in one field, he always has something else that can be done.

“It fits our system, so when we can’t work in the potato fields – if it’s raining or something – then the guys can sort and pack squash,” he said.

He keeps his seasonal workforce busy during the summer and fall, with some products requiring a different approach to harvesting. The earliest variety that Heath plants, a fingerling, is prone to skinning if handled too roughly. So he goes through with a digger, then lets them sit on the ground for a couple of days. After their skins set a bit, workers go through the field and pick them up. From there, they would go through a washer and they’re boxed for storage.

The other varieties don’t require such sensitive handling, but Heath said that to get the early fingerlings out in good shape a gentler touch was required.

Developing Markets

Heath first started growing organically in 1982 after a mission trip to Malaysia a few years earlier. He’d gone there to help local farmers grow their crops better, but he ended up learning from them as well. The chemicals that he’d instructed them to use didn’t work on the local pests. But by using traditional farming methods, the native farmers could produce a healthy crop with few diseases and pest damage.

When he started, the first crop to receive organic treatments were his hay fields, which Heath stopped spraying with insecticides. He bought ladybugs to increase the number of beneficial insects.

After the organic potato crop failed to make money, he focused on developing markets for the products.

About half of the M&M Heath Farms potato crop now goes to customers for processing, and most are shipped to the Los Angeles area. His organic potatoes can be found in organic frozen meals from Amy’s Kitchen and in bags of potato chips from Kettle Chips.

He also sells some to retail customers, including Albertson’s, but that requires him to ship from Idaho to Utah, and the retailer then ships them back to Idaho grocery stores. With the increased demand for sustainability, the increased transportation of food has become an issue, and Heath is trying to convince the retailers to use more local produce in a rational way.

He also markets directly to customers. He sells produce at two local farmers’ markets, where he can interact with customers and answer their questions about organics. He also participates in a Community Supported Agriculture enterprise in which customers pay up front to receive locally grown organic produce through the marketing season.

But even with a range of outlets, Heath said there is still a need to store his potatoes. He doesn’t have a very high-tech storage facility, but he makes it work, he said.

“We have limited storage. We’re a little unique, or stupid,” Heath said. “We take them out of the field and wash them, then put them into boxes. Then during the winter, we unpack the boxes and sort them.”

He tries to keep the storage between 35 ˚ F and 40 ˚ F. There’s some sugaring in storage, but that’s not as much of a problem for fresh potatoes. The potatoes that are used for processing aren’t stored on his farm – they’re sent to the customer at harvest.

Organics in Idaho

The state producing the largest number of organic products is California – by far. Idaho is a ways down the list, but researchers and growers are looking at organic opportunities in the state. Researchers and Extension agents from the University of Idaho have been looking at organic storage treatment options, such as clove oil or mints, in recent years, and have been working with growers to develop markets for potatoes grown in fields being converted to organic production methods but not yet through the three-year transition process.

Some of that added emphasis on organic production was prompted by an increased interest in organic Idaho potatoes for processing. There is currently a high demand for that product, but a very short supply. Heath has worked with Extension personnel at the university, hosting field days and research plots on his farm. There has been a lot of interest in organic production methods from conventional growers throughout the state, he said.

It’s taken Heath a long time to overcome some of the challenges of organic potato production, and he’s been doing it since before it was popular. He sees himself as a farmer first, no too much different from other Idaho potato growers. He just has a unique production method and a few more hoops to jump through. It comes down to growing a quality product and working with customers to market it, something conventional and organic growers can agree on.

“I think they’re as particular about their product as anyone else,” Heath said, speaking about conventional growers and shippers.

Heath sees the organic market growing further, but he’s content to stay at the size he is right now. He’s been able to find markets for his certified organic products and still have that personal contact with many of his customers. Organic buyers are a loyal customer base, but they also can turn on a company that gets too big, so there’s an advantage to remaining a mid-size organic producer, Heath said.

Originally posted Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008

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