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Harvest Tour gives ‘influencers’ a taste of Idaho agriculture

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

Two dozen members of the media – traditional as well as social media influencers – got to experience a slice of Idaho’s vast agricultural industry Aug. 31 during the 2nd annual Idaho Preferred Harvest Tour.

The day-long bus tour took the participants to a wide variety of agricultural operations, from fifth-generation farms to first-generation operations, and from a small farm to a major food processor.

At each stop, tour participants had a chance to ask detailed questions and learn a little about the opportunities and challenges the operations face.

Idaho Preferred is an Idaho State Department of Agriculture program that promotes agricultural products produced by Idaho’s 25,000 farms and ranches and educate consumers about opportunities to purchase local food.  

Idaho Preferred Marketing Specialist Dawn Larzelier, who helped organize the tour, said it was a great opportunity to help some media influencers in Idaho experience and learn a little bit about the state’s agricultural industry.

“The reason we do the media tour is to help tell the story of our farmers and our ranchers and the food they produce,” she said. “There’s an incredible amount of passion out there within the local food community and I think it often goes overlooked. The reason for this tour is to get together some of the people that can help tell that story.”

Idaho’s farms and ranches produce 185 different agricultural commodities, everything from main staple foods such as milk, potatoes, beef, onions, grain and beans, to small niche products such as pumpkins, yaks, sunflowers and truffles.

“We tried to showcase the variety of agriculture throughout Idaho, which is such a diverse state when it comes to farming,” Larzelier said. “I felt it was great for people to see the fifth-generation family farm and also the start-up farm.”

“What we tried to do is show a little bit of everything that we have to offer,” she added. “I think we did a pretty good job of showcasing everything from dairy to meat to produce to wine, and some of our specialty crops.”

September is Idaho Preferred Month and the tour is held right at the beginning of that celebration on purpose, said Laura Johnson, who manages the ISDA’s Market Development Division.

“September is the peak of harvest, when we have the most products available,” she said. “We’re really celebrating the bounty of Idaho agriculture and we are making a real push to promote our Idaho products and help drive sales, whether it’s through restaurants or retail stores or direct to consumer.”

“Our Harvest Tour was really geared toward media and social media influencers and other people that can help us tell the story about Idaho agriculture,” Johnson said. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from but so many people don’t understand agriculture and I think the tour was enlightening for a lot of the media folks….”

Johnson said she hopes tour participants were “impressed by the quality of our ag products and the diversity of our ag products. They met the hard-working farm families that are behind our agriculture industry. I really hope people were impressed by Idaho agriculture.”

The tour’s first stop was at Hoagland Meat, whose goal is “to provide high-quality meat from your local rancher,” said CEO JD Hoagland.

Hoagland Meat, located in Homedale, offers custom harvesting and two of its main goals, Hoagland said, are to help local ranchers “capture more of the dollars from the animals that they work so hard to raise” and also to “get more local product onto your plates at home.”

The second stop was at Symms Fruit Ranch, a fifth-generation family owned operation in the Sunny Slope area near Caldwell.

Founded in 1914, the fruit ranch produces 25 varieties of apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, pears, wine grapes and onions on 5,000 acres.

“This time of year, you’ll see lots of harvesters in the area,” Larzelier told tour participants as they traveled by bus to the third stop, Wissel Farms in Nampa.

She also reminded them that September is Idaho Preferred Month. “It’s just a fabulous celebration of Idaho agriculture. We hope that you enjoy it and support local.”

A family-run business, Wissel Farms was established in 1911 and grows a wide selection of vegetables and melons, including green beans, sweet corn, cabbage, winter squashes, watermelon and pumpkins.

Farm owner Matt Wissel spoke frankly about the many challenges the farm and others in the area face, including rapid development, water availability and ever-rising input costs.

He used diesel fuel as an example of the sometimes immediate impact of increasing costs.

“Diesel went up $1.10 over the last 30 days,” he said. “That affects us immediately.

“On the selling side, it gets tougher and tougher. On the input side, it gets tougher and tougher,” he added.

Tour participants had a lunch prepared with 100 percent Idaho-grown ingredients at the fourth stop, Indian Creek Winery, a family-owned and operated winery in Kuna.

Tammy Stowe-McClure, part of the second generation running the operation, talked about the role agritourism plays for the winery.

“It’s not just the wine drawing people out here; it’s the experience,” she said.

The fifth stop was at Back Forty Farms in Nampa, which, in addition to food production, offers agritourism experiences and equine therapy for people suffering from mental health issues and trauma.

After selling their companies and “retiring” in 2013, Ron and Lisa Kearn sold their dream home and started Back Forty Farms in 2018.

The 42-acre property used to be a 100-acre dairy farm in the early 1900s and was once visited by Annie Oakley.

The farm, which sells organic freeze-dried food, has a variety of animals, including alpacas, goats, chickens, horses, cows, llamas, bunnies and even two kangaroos.

With no real agricultural experience before starting the farm, “We’ve been on a learning ladder, not a learning curve,” Ron Kearn told tour participants.

But, he added, “We can hardly keep anything in stock. (People) like our food.”

The sixth and final stop was at the Lactalis facility in Nampa that produces cheeses, including mozzarella, string cheese and mascarpone.

Part of Lactalis Group, the world’s largest dairy group, the Nampa facility makes all of its products from Idaho milk, 90 percent of which is sourced from the Treasure Valley in southwestern Idaho.

“There’s so much breadth to Idaho agriculture,” Johnson said. “To be honest, the toughest part for us in planning a tour like this is selecting where to go because we have so many choices in this valley.”