Sustainable Urban Farm in Boise, ID Survives and Thrives Despite Encroaching Urban Sprawl
January 28, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
At Peaceful Belly, an urban farm just eleven miles outside Boise, it’s all about locally produced healthy food, organic crop variety and a sustainable local culture. The farm is run by Josie Erskine, her husband Clay and a group of willing volunteers who work the 70 acre parcel nestled between two foothills in the Dry Creek Valley. The urban farm is a labor of love and an important source of food in the local community.
In recent years farmland has disappeared from the Boise outlying area due to urban sprawl, including one large farm that was sold and turned into apartment buildings. Saving and working farmland in a sustainable manner is very important at Peaceful Belly Farm which is the largest contiguous farmland left in the area. The farm grows over 130 varieties of tomatoes, around 80 types of peppers and approximately 150 different crop using strictly organic methods. Through composting, irrigation, crop rotation, cover crops and reclaiming water, Peaceful Belly creates certified organic produce for the many programs they support. And when Erskine says organic, she means it.
“The only pest device we use on our farm is floating row cover. We use no sprays even if they are organically approved,” explains Erskine. “I think that people, when they see ‘organic,’ just assume that there was no pesticides used but ‘organic’ allows a lot of pesticides they are not as strong or they are botanically derived but they still kill everything so if you spray you still kill everything.”
This decade old adventure in sustainable urban agriculture has led Josie and Clay to become a part of their local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), collaborate with a local cooperative (Idaho’s Bounty) to market food to area restaurants and stores, work closely with the local food bank, offer classes in gardening and cooking across the road at Hidden Springs and generally turn their farming experiment into a community project. Through the CSA program, Josie can list her produce, allowing folks to order for their grocery store or their kitchen table. Ensuring her healthy organic produce is accessible to everybody regardless of socioeconomic matters lies at the core of Josie’s farming philosophy.
“I think there is a perception that organic food is elitist,” shares Erskine. “Our CSA is very inexpensive for what you get. It’s around 50 percent less than if you were to buy it at a grocery store; meaning that it is acceptable to any level of income. We also accept food stamps at our farmers market. That myth that only rich people can eat organic is one that I really want to make go away by creating a model that any financial or social level could access food from us if they need it.”
Peaceful Belly’s operation breaks even every year and carries little to no rotating debt which makes it very successful in the world of farming. Despite a lack of profit, Erskine allows locals to glean her fields. Gleaners from the local food bank, and anyone else who wishes to participate, can walk behind the combine harvester and glean the crops of any remaining produce. This food belongs to the gleaner free of charge. The concept helps clean the fields while it feeds the hungry. Add that to the fact that the local food bank truck drives up to the farm every Tuesday to pick up donations and you have to wonder if Erskine ever expects to do more than break even. She’s working on that but as Erskine explains there’s much more to urban farming than getting rich.
“Well I think that urban agriculture plays a very legitimate role in any type of long term food policy that is created anywhere in the United States,” states Erskine. “Legislators from any state are based upon population of an area so you have more legislators in an urban area than you will in a rural area […] so those famers that are in urban areas that participate in Cooperatives or CSAs or farmer’s markets are bringing agriculture to a group of people that don’t have it in their face every day […] so they play a large part in helping to form what agriculture legislation looks like for the whole United States. In my opinion it really effects what our food system looks like.”
The Erskines are college educated, civically involved and diligently follow the politics of farming. Locally, Peaceful Belly Farm has firm support for their efforts through farmer friendly regulations and policies. And although they participate in federally constructed projects such as the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), they are extremely concerned about the effect recent federal food safety policies will have on their small operation.
“…What’s frightening now are the regulations that are going to start coming out of the FDA for small farms with vegetable handling and food safety. A lot of those processes are already in place on those larger farms but to put them into place on our farm that is our size…well, it’s going to cost us a chunk of change,” explains Erskine.
Erskine is referring to the Food Safety Modernization Act that passed earlier this month. Of course food safety is very important at Peaceful Belly, but Erskine is worried that small family operations are being treated the same as large corporate farms without thought for the effect on individual growers.
For the folks at Peaceful Belly Farm, the fight for equality in food distribution and fair business practices are very real concerns. For now, Josie and Clay Erskine seem content to grow their foothills paradise of organic diversity into an even bigger success over the next ten years by influencing the local food system while teaching their followers about the green world that sustains them.