Idaho agriculture is perhaps best known for its ‘spud-ilicious’ potatoes yet the Gem State’s almost $8 billion farming industry is a diverse combination of about 185 commodities ranging from livestock to barley, alfalfa, trout, dry edible beans, and wheat.
In mid-June, a dozen U.S. cotton and rice farmers toured farms and processing facilities in southeastern Idaho as part of the National Cotton Council of America’s (NCC) 10th annual Multi-Commodity Exchange Program (MCEP), sponsored by John Deere.
“This exchange program serves as a starting point to help agricultural leaders gain more knowledge about U.S. agriculture as a whole and helps them understand the needs and challenges faced by various commodity groups,” says John Gibson, director of NCC’s member services and the MCEP coordinator.
Program participants included: Dean Wells, Casa Grande, Ariz.; from Texas, Steve Olson of Plainview, Allan Fuchs of Garden City, and Barry Evans of Kress; Tommy Moore of Somerville, Tenn.; Herbert Price, Dixie, Ga.; Sam Spruell, Mt. Hope, Ala.; Andrew Grobmeyer, Little Rock, Ark.; Curtis Berry, Tunica, Miss., Jim Whitaker, McGehee, Ark.; plus the NCC’s Craig Brown and John Gibson.
The Idaho livestock industry generates about half of Idaho’s agricultural production value. The state has more cows (2.4 million) than people (1.6 million), and ranks third nationally in dairy behind California and Wisconsin, respectively.
The four-day cross country bus tour covered about 1,100 miles with stops at nearly 20 farm operations, crop processing facilities, and growing regions mostly in the state’s high desert region.
Idaho farmer Dwight Little of Little Farms at Newdale, shared, “This area has some of the most fertile soils in the world.” Laura Johnson of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture added, “Irrigation and the climate make Idaho a great place to farm.”
The western state includes about 25,000 farms and ranches on more than 11 million acres, including 3.3 million acres of irrigated land. In addition to rainfall, water for Idaho agriculture comes from the Snake River.
Idaho ranks first nationally in potato production, growing one third of the U.S. spud crop. It’s the nation’s leading trout fish producer, growing about 75 percent of the nation’s supply of farm-raised trout.
(To view the Farm Press photo gallery of the tour, click on this link - http://westernfarmpress.com/cotton/photos-ncc-cotton-grower-tour-idaho-agriculture.
During a tour stop at Gibbs Farms, the group learned about the Gibbs family’s operation which includes winter wheat, malt barley, plus potatoes mostly for seed are grown. Producer Mark Gibbs, a member of the Idaho legislature, joined by his son Josh, described the production of these Idaho staples.
One of Mark Gibb’s points to the crowd was the continuing consolidation of businesses across the United States, including the potato industry. He said, “Years ago there were 30-40 potato growers in this area. Today, 7-8 growers produce more potatoes than have ever been grown here before.”
Monsanto phosphorus facilities
Several hours were spent at Soda Springs touring Monsanto’s Blackfoot Bridge phosphorus mine and processing facility where about 230 million pounds of elemental phosphorus is mined and processed annually. Phosphorus is the raw ingredient in the company’s Roundup herbicide.
This area has the only elemental phosphorus production facilities in the western hemisphere.
“If these plants didn’t exist, you’d have to get phosphorus from China, Vietnam, or Morocco,” a Monsanto leader said.
To open and operate, the Blackfoot mine had to meet the regulatory requirements of almost 50 state and federal agencies. The Blackfoot operation was the first phosphorus mine approved by the Obama administration.
Cotton grower Allan Fuchs was amazed by the advanced technology required to operate the Monsanto facility.
Fuchs said, “I was amazed by the chemistry and complexity to remove phosphate from the ore. There are huge costs associated with making Roundup, including millions and millions of dollars spent on the equipment alone to mine the ore.”
Between bus stops, Stacey Satterlee of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and Kelly Olson of the Idaho Barley Commission shared crop facts and answered questions. These local farm leaders largely developed the tour schedule.
The cotton crowd visited the 460-acre University of Idaho Aberdeen Research and Extension Center to gain an agricultural research perspective. The center is a combined UI and USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) facility with potatoes and small grains the main crops under the researchers’ ‘microscopes.’
UI cereal pathologist Juliet Marshall discussed high quality barley varieties developed at the station and showcased cultivars during an onsite field tour. ARS potato breeder Rich Novy called ‘potato virus y’ the No. 1 disease challenge in potato production.
Tom Baldwin of ARS is utilizing traditional crop breeding and genetic engineering to look for answers on fusarium head blight disease in wheat. Baldwin shared his support for GMO technology.
“For years, science didn’t want to use the word ‘GMO’ and this was a big mistake. Activists took the term ‘GMO’ and added negative propaganda. We cannot allow this to happen again,” Baldwin said.
Crop processing tour stops included the ConAgra Lamb Weston frozen potato processing plant at American Falls which processes two millions pounds of potatoes daily into fries and other products, including sweet potatoes sourced from California and Louisiana; and Wilcox Fresh’s 98,000 square foot potato processing facility at Rexburg.
The Wilcox operation sorts, cleans, packs, and ships from about 80,000 to 145,000 pounds of fresh potatoes daily. Most are shipped to the southeastern U.S., including Sam’s Club and Costco. Terry Wilcox told the producers that potato sales are mostly flat, partly due to false nutritional information and the low-carbohydrate Atkin’s diet.
No. 3 in dairy
The dairy tour at Southfield Dairy in Wendell was led by Arie Roeloffs who moved his dairy in 1992 from Tulare, Calif. to Idaho. Today, his 7,500 cow Holstein herd, plus one jersey cow “to keep things interesting,” produces 83-87 pounds of milk per day per cow (without fat).
“It used to be that 60 pounds of milk made a dairyman happy,” Roeloffs shared. He noted that 2014 was a great year for the dairy industry, thanks to higher milk prices.
The main question posed by the cotton producers was whether cottonseed was included in Roeloff’s dairy ration. Roeloffs noted that 4.8 pounds of cottonseed “from the South” was fed daily to each cow, news that drew cheers and smiles from the cotton crowd.
The group also toured Glanbia Foods at Twin Falls, the largest milk processor in Idaho, and nibbled on three types of cheese cubes – Colby jack with vitamin D, gruyere, and red hot habanero, the latter of which drew a few red faces and ‘thumbs up’ from the group.
About 70 percent of the milk produced in Idaho is made into cheese with just 4 percent bottled.
Innovators in water use
Water, and the lack of it, was a major topic throughout the tour. At the Twin Falls Canal Company, manager Brian Olmsted explained a new state water deal which settled decades of conflict between senior and junior water right holders.
The agreement establishes new rules and allowances. In return, water supplies to junior water right holders were reduced 12.5 percent.
During the tour, Tennessee cotton grower and ginner Tommy Moore was impressed with Idaho farmers’ overall use of water.
“I was amazed by how they manage water and how they find ways to make some land productive that otherwise would have been pastureland,” Moore said.
Teton farming - dam collapse
The last area the group toured was an area in the Tetons nicknamed ‘Little Erie’ due to the area’s huge underground aquifer. Statewide, center pivot irrigation is king across this farming belt, yet water supplies are limited.
Dwight Little said, “If a crop has to be shorted water due to limited water availability, potatoes get the water first with less to the grain crop.”
Little led the group to the edge of the Teton River and the former earthen Teton Dam, a federal water project completed in 1976 which sprang a leak as it was filling. The water destroyed the dam (watch video), killing 11 people and 13,000 cattle. The dam was never rebuilt.
Cotton growers impressed
Cotton producer Sam Spruell of Alabama was impressed by the efficient use of water by Idaho farmers.
“I really paid attention to irrigation on this trip and how center pivots are used no matter the topography of the field or the field shape,” Spruell said. “These growers are using available water to the best of their ability.”
Cotton grower Dean Wells from Arizona was amazed by the many crops grown in Idaho. He noted, “As farmers, we cannot have too many cropping options in agriculture. We need every option we can get to be successful.”
Wells added, “The trip was a great learning experience. Idaho farmers face the same water and environmental issues that we do.”
He plans to return to Idaho later this year for a family vacation.
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