If Weather Were All That Mattered 

The potential for local food in winter

Surprising spring colors in the dead of winter come from Merrily Eckel's greenhouse in Hagerman.

Guy Hand

Surprising spring colors in the dead of winter come from Merrily Eckel's greenhouse in Hagerman.

Deep into another Idaho winter, I can't help but think back on a battered greenhouse in an icy Hagerman field that I stumbled toward some three years ago. From the outside, that gray greenhouse all but faded into a snow-flecked, gunmetal sky. But as soon as owner Merrily Eckel pushed open its creaky door, an unmistakable, if utterly incongruous scent hit me like a blast of sunlight. In front of us stood a full grown orange tree, heavy with fruit.

"Anything you could grow from Baja north, you can grow in here," Eckel said through a half-contained smile.

As I pulled off my coat, I slowly began to comprehend what my eyes were not quite believing. Beyond that orange tree were others: grapefruit, lemon, pomelo--a citrus forest full of day-glow fruit, all coddled in geothermal heat. If ever I thought winter meant months of starchy monotony, this greenhouse blew that misconception out the door. Eckel pulled a tangerine off another tree--an Idaho tangerine.

"This is a Satsuma tangerine," she said. "That's the kind that the skin comes off like a jacket, really easy, one hand. Lots of kids get these in their stockings Christmas morning in places like California. I had maybe a thousand on this tree last year."

Winter, of course, is a challenging time for those with a hunger for local food. By January or February, an ascetic's gruel of spuds, onions and wobbly carrots can weaken the resolve of even the most devoted locavore. But Southern Idaho sits on the same latitude as Tuscany, meaning the Snake River Plain is endowed with the same length of winter light as that famously olive-soaked region of Italy. And it's why some say what we lack in winter warmth we can make up for with our wealth of geothermal heat. Couple that with greenhouses and Tuscan-level light and dreamers say we could blow that tired California lettuce and flaccid Florida orange juice out the door.

If only weather were all that mattered.

James Reed, who first brought me to Eckel's stunning little geothermal oasis, was, back then, deep into his own greenhouse dream, housed just down the road.

"Right now we're at the Arches Greenhouse Complex," Reed said as we drove up to dozens of empty commercial greenhouses just outside of Hagerman. "We've leased about 7,000 square feet, and we're growing food here. It's the first time food has been grown in these greenhouses for maybe 30 years."

Traditionally, the hot-springs-heated greenhouses scattered all over Southern Idaho have mostly grown flowers and bedding plants, not food. Reed had hoped to change that by leasing off-season space to grow a winter's worth of local lettuce, spinach, arugula--and maybe even early tomatoes and peppers--for Idaho's Bounty, a local food distribution system he helped launch.

"These greenhouses are fairly unique," Reed said as we stepped into a toasty, translucent tunnel filled with baby greens. "They're heated with artesian geothermal water that comes out at about 130 degrees and enables us to keep [them] warm through the winter with very little energy cost. And that's why we're here."

The place smelled like a just-plated salad, the lettuce so fresh it squeaked as we nibbled. Perfectly fresh winter greens are a revelation. Crisp and sweet, they make trucked-in produce taste like yard waste. But even back then, Reed was cautious about how bright the future of Idaho winter greens could be.

"It remains to be seen if it's economic to raise food in greenhouses," he said. "No one is doing it, and we're in the process of finding out."

Three years after that conversation, Reed found out. During a recent phone call, he said with an unguarded sigh: "It just has not been economic to do food."

Even with nearly free heat, unused greenhouses and the compelling potential for unbeatably fresh fruit and crisp greens, Reed said he smacked into the cold, hard reason why few Idahoans are growing in winter: Cheap, industrial food.

"It's just too incredibly hard to compete with a truck coming in from California," said Reed. "I do believe there is an emerging market for locally produced food but that really hasn't translated in the willingness of people to pay the prices necessary to interest the more professional greenhouse growers."

Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Organics in Sweet is hoping to grow in geothermal greenhouses but agrees with Reed about the frosty financial realities of local food in winter.

"With every advantage that we gain with either geothermal water or season extension techniques, we're outdone by people who are thousands of miles away who are growing in a totally different climate," he said. "That's something that we just can't compete with. For every advantage we gain, there's somebody out there that kind of cheats the system, to our way of thinking, and can produce even below what we can with our geothermal hot water. So that's frustrating, that's really frustrating."

Walking through crusty snow toward a row of his own greenhouses, Tim Sommer of Purple Sage Farms in Middleton said he understands that frustration. In fact, as one of Idaho's greenhouse veterans, he lived those frustrations for 20 growing seasons. During that time, Sommer never grew winter vegetables. He blames that, in part, on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in 1994 let loose a flood of cheap winter produce that surged north from Mexico. Unable to compete, Sommer buys and resells Mexican herbs himself.

"So it didn't work very good for us," Sommer said as he pushes his hands into his pockets and walks past aging tractors and empty greenhouses. "In some ways I feel like I'm in a ghetto business," he said in a folksy, Henry Fonda-like cadence, "instead of out front shining."

And yet, in the last two years, Sommer has found a reason to be tentatively optimistic, has even begun to shine, thanks to the burgeoning local food movement.

"I've been so grateful for this change in people's observance of the value of food in their lives and what it does to their bodies, their health, what it does to their community. They have this whole new set of values. It's really changing things."

Stepping into one of his greenhouses, Sommer pulls back a thin sheet of agricultural cloth, revealing a long row of dark green kale.

"This crop that we're looking at right now is a perfect example of that," he said. "Two years ago we never grew winter crops. All of a sudden I found that somebody wanted it. I couldn't believe it. I found out for the first time ever that people would be interested in winter greens."

Sommer has begun growing and selling cold-season produce to Treasure Valley stores and restaurants that value locally grown winter vegetables and are willing to pay a proper price. He can even afford to bring his son Mike back home to work with him now.

In a voice close to breaking, Sommer said, "That's how much this change in the local food movement [has] brought."

It's a profound enough shift to warrant walking through hard snow to an empty field so he can show me where he plans to add additional greenhouses designed to grow winter crops for the local market. He doesn't even have geothermal heat--just sunlight and renewed enthusiasm.

"Just changing the orientation to the sun would make this thing work without any fossil fuel or any other external source," he said, waving his hand over a blank canvas of snow.

Back in Hagerman, Reed has found a profitable way to grow winter greens. Instead of losing money on the retail market, he opened a restaurant in Twin Falls called the Local Dish Market & Cafe. There his squeaky-fresh, greenhouse-grown produce is a prominent, profitable part of the menu.

Merrily Eckel, on the other hand, never had trouble getting a stellar price for her Idaho citrus. Atkinsons' Market in Ketchum sells every bit of fruit she delivers. Where else, she asks, can a locavore find a fresh Idaho orange?

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