by Sally Colby
Like many farms, Swore Farms in Pocatello, Idaho, started a CSA to increase revenue, especially in spring.
“We’re big enough that it’s too much work and a lot of expense but not enough to sustain an employee,” said Wendy Swore, explaining the CSA that started about seven years ago. “We’re finding that in spring, especially in May and June, all the money has gone into planting and there’s nothing left. The CSA helps us get through that time, and it’s been really positive.”
After designing a 20-week CSA, the Swores told customers they’d receive a share of the harvest each week. “Our customers wanted to know what they would get,” said Wendy. “It was a huge leap of faith the first year because I didn’t know for sure what I could put in the baskets. I hadn’t tried to do that before.”
Today, when she’s asked what’s included in the shares, Wendy directs customers to the farm’s CSA page where they can see the contents of shares over the last six years in addition to the current week’s share. “I do this because I honestly don’t know what I will harvest each week,” said Wendy, adding that pictures help more than just a list. “It depends on what’s ready. This way, people can see what the baskets look like and get an idea of what to expect. I harvest whatever I can and post a picture of it.” Wendy said this method is helpful because some crops suddenly produce heavily, while others fizzle out, and customers can see ahead of time what they’re getting.
Wendy strives to provide a wide variety in each basket to make sure shares are fulfilled. “We give them whatever we can harvest on our farm or local in the area,” she said. “In spring they might get a pint of honey, garlic scapes and a loaf of potato bread. Then later in summer, the share fills a laundry basket.”
Over the years, Wendy has found that the customers who sign up year after year are those who have learned to store some of the produce. “They’ve never canned, frozen or dried anything before,” she said, “but once they start with the CSA program, they might get two dozen ears of corn and freeze part of it.” Wendy teaches customers how to freeze or dry herbs, and said the process isn’t too overwhelming for those new to food preservation because they’re doing it little by little.
While some customers are unfamiliar with some of what is grown on the farm, items such as garlic scapes and kohlrabi quickly turn into favorites. However, when a customer requested Jerusalem artichokes, Wendy grew them, but the crop didn’t appeal to most customers so they’re no longer on the growing list. Wendy also works with a local orchard to purchase apples for shares. “We try to get customers what they want,” she said, “but we make sure it’s local.”
In addition to marketing through the CSA program, Swore Farms’ produce is available at two farmers markets: Jackson Hole and the Portneuf Valley Farmers Market in Old Town Pocatello. Starting in mid-August, customers can purchase produce directly from the farm.
In the past, the Swores hosted Pocatello fourth graders on the farm to learn about how potatoes grow. “We bring them to the farm and dig red potatoes for them,” Wendy explained. “This year, with all the changes, we’re going to try to do something virtual. Hopefully we can make a video for the kids to see the harvesting process.”
The Swores grow only red potatoes, and unlike most large Idaho potato growers, all potatoes are sold directly to customers. “We have about four acres of potatoes,” said Wendy. “They go out through the CSA, farmers markets or from the farm. Because we only dig what we’re going to use in the next few days, they’re always fresh and tasty.” Wendy said a red potato the size of a quarter is delicious, and a giant red potato is still delicious. “People love the variety of sizes,” she said. “We start digging potatoes as soon as they’re big enough, and we can keep digging until the season is over.”
CSA members enjoy several bonuses with their membership, including a spring dinner and tour of the farm. “This year we did that virtually,” said Wendy. “We hope things calm down enough by the end of August so we can do a corn dinner here on the farm.” Other bonuses include a ride to the pumpkin patch, a corn maze and other autumn activities. The Swores take people out to the 16-acre pumpkin patch in a wagon, let them pick what they want, then provide a ride back.
Wendy said the short growing season means paying attention to the weather and making adjustments to ensure crops are ready on time. It isn’t unusual to have frost into June, and the first frost arrives toward late September. “We have some pumpkins that are 120 days, but the 110-day pumpkins do better,” said Wendy. “Last year was the coolest October in Idaho in recorded history, and we lost our pumpkins the second week in October. We hauled in as many as we could, but it was 13º so it didn’t matter how much sprinkling and cover we used.”
To ensure success with pumpkins in a short growing season, Wendy plants seeds into plugs and starts them in a greenhouse, then transplants them when they’re about three to four inches tall. The Swores planted about 26 different varieties this year, including giants, warty and various colors. This year, they put 24,000 plants in the ground once the weather was settled.
Swore Farms includes 100 acres, which allows ample crop rotation, especially for sweet corn and pumpkins. Five 30-by-100-foot greenhouses also provide growing space. In early spring, hoop houses are heated with propane.
Tomatoes are started and grown to maturity under cover. “It keeps the birds off and we can control the weather conditions a little better,” said Wendy. “We get a head start that way.” Wendy likes to grow a variety of tomatoes, including heirlooms, cherry varieties, Better Boy, Early Girl and large beefsteaks.
Visitors frequently stop in at the farm, and Wendy always takes time to explain crops and the growing process. “Because we’re so much a part of the community, people look up farms and find us,” she said. “We do it at the drop of a hat, and try to be a positive face of agriculture. There’s so much misinformation out there about farming – I want people to see that we’re good stewards of the land.”