Idaho’s Wood River Organics thrives on fresh
By Carol Ryan Dumas
Wood River Organics
Owners: Judd and Heather McMahan, both age 36
Location: Belleview, Idaho
Acreage: 50 acres, 5 acres certified organic produce, several acres non-certified hay production
Certification: Certified organic by Idaho State Department of Agriculture
Products: Organic produce and plant starts
Employees: 6 at the height of the season
Other business: Horse boarding
Family: Son Austin, 6 (in September), daughter Galena, 3
Nestled at the gateway to the Sawtooth Mountains in the scenic Wood River Valley, Wood River Organics functions in tune with nature and in the confines of organic certification to bring the valley’s community the freshest, naturally grown produce possible.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Owners Judd McMahan and his wife, Heather, moved away from their rural roots and family farms in south-central Idaho to chase bigger dreams in Seattle.
Judd grew up on a 3,000 acre family farm in Picabo, Idaho, and while he loved the farm, he was not going to be a farmer, he said.
So after he and Heather married in 2000, they he took off for Seattle, where Judd studied industrial design at the Art Institute of Seattle and Heather earned her master’s degree in cellular molecular biology at the University of Washington.
But the lack of soil for gardening in their first urban apartment surprisingly drove Judd crazy, so they moved to a house with a garden. With a renewed interest in growing food and after experimenting with produce varieties that would thrive in the Pacific Northwest, they returned to Idaho with a new dream.
Judd wanted to supply the community with fresh, healthy produce, and Heather wanted to get back to her passion for horses.
They started with a 7,000-square-foot garden down the road from the 50-acre farm they have now and focused on tomatoes. Ten years later, they now have a certified organic 5-acre produce operation -- as well as a horse boarding facility, three horses, and hay acreage to feed the horses.
The organic produce season begins in late February/early March with seeds being sown indoors under lights through spring to get a head start on longer season produce. Plant starts are systematically moved to three greenhouses and either sold to the community or put into the operation’s own production out in the field.
The operation produces a wide variety of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, eggplants, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, and turnips, but about half of its operation is in leafy greens.
Judd still enjoys experimenting with new varieties and grows new varieties every year while culling ones that don’t work so well in the mountain climate. And he’s always available to help local gardeners with plant choices and growing advice.
The operation has grown over the last 10 years and rose to a new level four years ago with the purchase of a small lettuce harvester.
Its customer base has grown as well. In addition to selling plant starts to the community, Wood River Organics sells produce at local farmers markets, through the Boise Co-op and Idaho’s Bounty, and to several high-end restaurants from mid June through October. It also sells its storage crops, such as carrots and beets, through the winter.
The operation is very labor intensive to meet organic standards and stepped-up requirements under the new Food Safety Modernization Act. But Judd is well versed in organic production and HACCP protocols and runs a tight ship, keeping meticulous records.
"We have to track everything from seed to sale," he said.
That includes seeding, weeding, fertilizing, harvest, and sales, as well as water testing and food-safety measures in processing produce, he said.
While things can get chaotic during the long harvest, Judd gets a lot of satisfaction from providing local growers with successful varieties, growing high-quality produce and his customers’ enthusiasm.
The only thing he would have changed in the journey is to have purchased the farm complete, avoiding the headache and expense of putting together the pieces after buying the land, he said.
As for success in organic or sustainable farming, he advises good communication with other growers.
"A little communication goes a long way, so you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes and everyone benefits," he said.