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Getting Back To Basics Interest In Organic Farming Has Hit Idaho In A Big Way

Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt dream of spending the winter shin deep in cow dung, piling on layer after layer of hay and saving the waste for warmer days.

They can always hope.

The recent transplants from upstate New York toil from sunup to sundown on a rented 80-acre ranch east of Silverwood Theme Park. They are struggling to eke out an existence as farmers, using agricultural methods that have gone the way of the Model A.

They till the ground with Norwegian fjord horses. They plant carrots next to onions because pesky carrot flies can’t stand that onion odor.

They collect manure from their cow, pigs, chickens, mules and horses to enrich the soil in their garden. If they could, they’d use the manure to create, well, more manure.

“You put the animal manure onto the ground to make the hay to feed the animals to make more manure,” said Gawalt, on a recent hot summer day is she ran a mare around outside the barn. “That would be a completely enclosed system. But we have to buy hay in order to keep all these animals.”

Called “sustainable” or “organic” farming, this type of system - avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers and using crop rotation and other natural methods to control insects - is growing as fast as zucchini.

A nationwide surge in the popularity of organic farming has hit Idaho in a big way. In fact, Idaho is one of 22 states that require extensive inspecting and certification before farmers can sell groceries as “organically grown.”

“The numbers are phenomenal,” said Jim Boatman, bureau chief for Idaho’s Department of Agriculture. “When we first set up the program in 1990, we had 11 growers. Last year we had 94 and now it’s over 100.”

Idaho organic farmers grow everything from soybeans and rice to leafy vegetables and, of course, potatoes. One farmer even grows edible organic garnishes for upscale restaurants.

“It makes a nice-looking plate with that flower on there and then you can gobble it right up,” Boatman said.

An explanation for the popularity depends on who you talk to, he said. While the United States has the “safest food in the world,” many people find organically grown vegetables reassuring.

“A lot of people have an aversion to what’s happening in the world, with the use of chemicals and more corporations doing farming,” he said. “A lot of it is simply going back to the way things were.”

Simpler, richer times motivate Gawalt and Leslie.

Leslie a one-time art school student, left Boston at age 24 and moved to Vermont where he joined an order of Benedictine monks. After six years of living “a life of balance and purity” he left the order for Hawthorne Valley, N.Y., to try his hand at farming.

There he met Gawalt. They answered an ad in a farming magazine for a caretaker and moved to John Giesen’s Cedar Mountain ranch last fall.

“The idea is to create healthy soil, and the feeling is that beautiful vegetables will follow,” Leslie said.

They sell shares in their crop - $450 a season for a family supply - and allow a handful of neighbors to pick their own vegetables.

Eliminating the middleman and bringing consumers in direct contact with farms keeps prices down and creates a “warmer relationship between grower and buyer,” Leslie said.

“People don’t start looking over a head of lettuce and checking for spots when they are a part of the farm,” Gawalt said.

Because the pair have been in Idaho only about nine months, they can’t technically be considered organic farmers. That process takes three years.

But their 3-1/2-acre garden is chemical free, producing bushels of squash, carrots, corn and other vegetables. They contract to sell groceries to an area health food store and join a handful of smaller gardeners at weekly farmers markets.

They don’t shy away from modern technology, but do most of their work with horses and mules.

However, Gawalt admits, “a front-end loader is an amazing invention.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

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