By JOHN O'CONNELL
FAIRFIELD, Idaho -- The Fairfield Valley's high-elevation farms have a short growing season and produce minimal yields.
However, the challenging conditions have also presented growers an opportunity.
About 35 farmers in the valley were among the first in Idaho to switch to organic feed production, since they'd been adding little supplemental fertilizer to their mineral-rich soil anyway, and their cool climate keeps pests in check.
Organic grower Bill Simon believes his farm -- and most others in the area -- have managed to survive with just two hay cuttings under irrigation and a single cutting on dry land thanks to the premium they've received for being organic.
After remaining strong from 2004-2007, Idaho organic prices fell to near commercial feed levels, prompting many producers to leave the industry. The market has strengthened during the past two years, and organic growers say they now have far more demand than product.
"It really has kept us in business," said Simon, who switched to organic in the early 1990s.
Simon grows commercially under irrigation but reserves most of his dry land for organic, occasionally spraying herbicides to control weeds, which forces him to take acreage out of organic production for three years. To improve his soil, he simply adds microbial amendments that unlock minerals into a usable form for plants.
In lieu of contracts, the organic growers sell their crops on a promise or handshake to neighbor Lou Anderson, of S&L Commodities, who also produces a considerable amount of organic hay and grain in the Fairfield area.
"We probably buy as much organic alfalfa as anybody in the U.S. -- probably more. We deal with 40,000 to 50,000 tons per year," said Anderson, who also handles about 6,500 tons per year of organic feed barley.
Three years ago, Anderson was unable to find organic buyers for 20,000 tons of his 50,000-ton supply, forcing him to sell it commercially. Last season, he managed to sell the entire crop through organic channels, and organic hay fetched a premium of about $30 per ton. The market for organic feed barley, which Anderson said is a tough crop to produce, has been even stronger.
"There isn't any available in this part of the world, but if there was, it would bring $500 per ton at the farmer's bin," Anderson said, adding organic feed barley prices are currently more than double those of commercial barley.
Anderson said demand for organic feed continues to exceed supply due to the number of organic producers who left the industry when prices dipped, difficult organic paperwork serving as a barrier to new producers and feed shortages created by last summer's drought.
Dubois, Idaho, grower Richard Larsen switched an 800-acre feed farm to organic last year because he hadn't been adding any chemicals or fertilizer to the land anyway. Larsen, who has sold to Anderson, said the "jury is still out" on his decision because the paperwork has been far more intensive than he anticipated.