Okra is OK 

Jason Brashears gives the gooey vegetable a go

Jason Brashears: The farmer of Okraville.

Guy Hand

Jason Brashears: The farmer of Okraville.

"So where are we headed?" I asked Jason Brashears as we hiked to the far end of a field that looked as if it were planted in nothing more promising than plowed dirt.

"We are going to Okraville," he said with a grin and a tip of his wide-brimmed, straw hat.

A little further along, after crunching our way through dirt clods the size of bricks, I could see Okraville: two ankle-high rows of 700 plants, some with bright red stems, tottering in a breeze near Hidden Springs like an army of lost infants. On this far corner of another farmer's field, Brashears planted three varieties of okra and thus launched a start-up he calls Jason's Fine Okra. A business based on one obscure vegetable may sound a tad peculiar, but Brashears and his crop represent a growing trend in Idaho agriculture.

The number of new farmers entering small-scale farming is on the rise, in part due to a host of avenues opening to first-time farmers allowing them to plant, process and sell their crops without the massive, up-front financial costs required of conventional agriculture. With less to lose, they have the freedom to experiment with products as odd and unlikely as okra.

"But why okra?" I asked

"Well, my family and I are from the Texas panhandle," Brashears explained in a faint, breezy drawl. "And down there, it's just all over. My grandma started growing it and so I guess I'm just kind of taking over a family tradition."

A family tradition in the South, perhaps. But for many, okra is an unfamiliar and unloved vegetable noted for the goo it exudes. A member of the mallow family, okra originated in what is now Ethiopia and has long been prized in the cuisines of Africa, the Middle East and India. The late New Orleans food writer and fifth-generation Creole Leon E. Soniat Jr. wrote that his grandmother, "Memere," often said the plant was introduced to America by slaves who "smuggled some of the okra seeds in their thick, bushy hair." Louisiana Indians soon embraced the bullet-shaped vegetable's goo factor, too, using it to thicken a stew they called gumbo, a variation on "ochinggombo," one of many African names for okra.

Brashears simply thinks okra tastes like home.

"Ever since we were old enough to eat solid foods, [okra has] been on our plates," he said as he knelt down to check on one of the three varieties of okra he'd planted.

A journeyman plumber who got tired of having to travel further from the Treasure Valley for work, Brashears took a job last year as a field manager at Peaceful Belly Farm near Hidden Springs. One day, at lunch, he suggested his okra idea to owners Clay and Josie Erskine.

"I had a jar of pickled okra my grandma had made," Brashears said. "And I brought it in and I opened it up for lunch and we all ate it, and I was like, 'this is kind of what I'd like to do if you guys have a little section I can take over and grow this and prove to you that I'm not going to just waste your time here.' They were more than willing to give me a chance. And I think they're excited to see something new come out of their land."

You might think that more farmers means more competition, but the Erskines say they like helping new farmers. They believe the diversity that a rising number of small farmers encourage can only strengthen the local food movement.

"Without more farmers in the local food movement, there won't be a local food movement," Josie Erskine said. "There has to be a lot of us. If we all work together, then we can all find niches that we fit into."

The Erskines got their start with the help of another Boise farming couple, Michael and Diane Jones, and think nurturing new farmers is built into the DNA of the local food movement.

Along with help from the Erskines and the farming community itself, Brashears found an affordable way to take the next step: processing and bottling his pickled okra.

"A commercial kitchen is just expensive," Brashears said at the thought of trying to build one himself. "And the regulations are just hoop after hoop. But the University of Idaho has an extension office in Caldwell, and it's a commercial kitchen that's an awesome opportunity for small businesses."

The University of Idaho's Food Technology Center in Caldwell is a 7,000-square-foot food processing facility designed to help fledgling food companies and individual entrepreneurs cook, can and otherwise prepare their products for sale. Without access to a certified commercial kitchen, Brashears wouldn't be able to legally sell his pickled okra to the public.

Social networking is another avenue open to new farmers that Brashears has embraced. He uses Facebook and a blog to promote Jason's Fine Okra. He posts farming photos, recipes and updates like the exclamatory, "We can't wait to get our Okra planting pants on! Headed out to the farm on this beautiful day!"

Once he has created a promotional buzz, harvested and canned his product, Brashears has one more ready-made venue to help him take the final step from Okraville to farming success: a place to sell it.

"We'll be down at the Capital City [Public] Market," he said. "I guess mid-July." Brashears plans to sell fresh okra, pickled okra and okra that he'll deep-fry on the spot.

Of course, there's no more guarantee that Brashears's farming venture will succeed than any other agricultural enterprise. But at least young farmers like Brashears have an expanding network of support that improves the odds.

At the end the tour of Okraville, I asked Brashears if he had anything else to add. He thought for a moment, smiled and said, "Eat more okra. It's all I know. Somebody needs to buy all this okra I'm growing."

"Or plumbing, here I come?"

"Yeah," he said.

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