by Sally Colby
Clay and Josie Erskine weren’t raised on farms, but became interested through a shared experience. “We were caretaking on a wilderness ranch in Idaho,” said Josie, “We had to keep a garden there. We fell in love with the idea of raising food, and wondered if we could grow vegetables for people.” The couple followed up to learn more, and participated in the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program in Oregon. After working on three farms, they returned to Idaho to farm a small lot. Today, they are successfully operating a 70-acre farm near Boise, Idaho. The farm is certified through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, a certifying agent of USDA’s National Organic Program. “The first time we attended a farmers market, we had six bags of lettuce mix,” said Josie. “We moved to two acres then 12, and eventually 70.” Two of the biggest,crops at Peaceful Belly Farm are tomatoes and peppers.
The farm was in neglected alfalfa for about 30 years before they started farming it. “This was some of the first farmed ground in this valley,” said Josie, describing the property. “It doesn’t have rocks and it’s a natural riverbed. We have years and years of soil deposits.” Soil tests are conducted frequently, but Josie says that Clay has a great eye for plants and can tell when nutrition is out of balance. Soil amendments are specific to each crop. For example, workers recently applied blood meal to raspberry beds. For other crops, Clay uses Peruvian seabird guano because it can be liquidized and used in smaller amounts. Irrigation is essential for successful crops and Peaceful Belly Farm is fortunate to be able to tap into a large, creek-fed aquifer. Irrigation is set up so that a crop on any section of the farm can be irrigated in the best possible way for that crop. Most of the main crops are on drip irrigation, while water is supplied to leafy greens through overhead irrigation.
Although Peaceful Belly Farm grows about 170 different vegetables and close to 200 varieties of tomatoes, Josie says that kale is their big seller. “When we first started farming, we saw a lot of movement toward using kale,” she said. “We decided early on that that would be something we put a lot of attention into.”
Each year, the Erskines establish five plantings of seven different varieties of kale so that it’s available throughout the season. “It’s susceptible to aphids in our dry, arid climate,” said Josie. “But we don’t have clubroot like some areas have, so we’re pretty lucky. We grow about three full acres of kale.” To help people become familiar with kale, Josie provides recipes and nutrient content through newsletters for CSA members. “We gave kale to our CSA members for years,” she said. “We were forcing them to try it in different ways. We took a gamble on putting a lot of value into that crop and it panned out to be as popular as we thought it would become.” As a biennial, kale bolts the second year. “You can pick a plant down pretty easily,” said Josie. “The aphids come when it’s too stressed, so we have to give it a break. That’s why we do the successional plantings – so we can leave some of the plantings alone.” Josie says that aphids tend to stick to kale, and that some customers find their presence undesirable. “I think organic growers are going to have to do a better job in teaching people which bugs they should be worried about,” she said. “We grow it this way so that we don’t have to spray anything. We could come in with an organic-approved spray, but those sprays also affect beneficials.”
Part of IPM for organic growers is monitoring pest populations. Josie and Clay pay close attention to aphids so they can develop a control plan. “Aphids are cyclical, if they come in we let them rest and work out their life cycle. As long as we have a different planting to pick from, we can leave them for about four weeks, then we can go back to those plants and the aphids have moved on.” Because the Erskines have ample acreage, they can rotate crops, another aspect of their IPM program. Each cover crop planted depends on the time of year and the crop history. “We use a lot of Austrian peas, oats, vetch, rye, clovers, radishes and arugulas,” said Josie. “We also have flowering plants, including blue flax, borage and sunflower, in some of the mixes to attract pollinators.” Last year, Peaceful Belly Farm worked with NRCS and the Xerces Society to establish two full acres as nectaries for native bees. “NRCS provided funding for habitat development and the Xerces Society advised us on what to plant,” said Josie. “It’s amazing to see what shows up. We found more than 25 species of bees.” Peaceful Belly Farm is also establishing beetle banks with native grasses and border strips. This year’s project is to create habitat for bats, including placing bat boxes around the farm.
Although they started small, Peaceful Belly Farm now offers 250 CSA shares and sells at the Boise Farmers Market. They’ve also developed a significant wholesale business with grocery stores and restaurants.
Peaceful Belly Farm offers a program that offers an inside look at growing methods. “It’s more of an educational program than a work program,” said Josie, explaining the 40-week on-farm program. “Twenty people start out with an acre of land and learn how to do everything. They come out every Wednesday night, and put in at least two hours a week. All of the produce grown on the acre is theirs.” She says the program allows people of any age an opportunity to learn how to grow vegetables. This year it was tough for new people to get into the class because so many returning students wanted to continue.
Josie enjoys raising vegetables, but her passion is flowers. She grows a wide variety of annuals and offers flowers for occasions, including weddings, as well as selling at the farmers’ market and to wholesale accounts at grocery stores.
Peaceful Belly Farm
by Sally Colby