PORTHILL, Idaho – There’s one rule at the Forked Tree Ranch: Don’t show up to church smelling like roadkill.
Such is the life of Pam and Dennis Ponsness, the owners of what might be the largest maggot and fly farm in the country. The couple often shower three times a day and use powerful peppermint soap to rid themselves of the putrid, eye-burning stench that permeates right down to their underwear.
Raising the rubbery, wormlike creatures – destined either for fishermen’s hooks or to metamorphose into flies to pollinate greenhouses of hybrid vegetables – is a smelly but lucrative wholesale business.
In polite company, the Ponsnesses often tell people they are farmers, declining to elaborate on their maggots or their colony of bluebottle flies. But such ambiguity might be no longer possible now that the stench has attracted a “Dirty Jobs” television crew.
“It was really gross,” said David Barsky, field producer for the popular Discovery Channel show. “The smell was almost unbearable. Right now as I stand, three weeks after the shoot, you can smell it on our equipment.”
Barsky and the show’s host, Mike Rowe, along with five other crew members, filmed at the maggot farm for 11 hours July 1. The episode, which is in editing in North Hollywood, is expected to air in September or October. It’s the first time “Dirty Jobs” has visited Idaho.
The producers heard about the Boundary County maggot farm while in Bethel, Alaska, last summer swabbing goose rear ends to monitor for avian flu. Dennis Ponsness’ son is a pharmacist in Bethel and attended a post-filming barbecue; he took the opportunity to pitch his family’s maggot farm.
“It’s fascinating,” Barsky said. “It’s one of those things that nobody really knows about.”
Raising maggots is a serious job. Pam Ponsness, a former self-proclaimed “girly-girl” who sold Mary Kay cosmetics, doesn’t like to be teased about her career choice. As on any farm, the work is nonstop, year-round, but the Ponsnesses like the freedom of self-employment and their ability to live on the remote hillside overlooking bright-yellow canola fields and miles of hops in the Kootenai River valley.
“People have got it in their heads what maggots do to roadkill and garbage cans,” Dennis Ponsness said while relaxing in his kitchen. “They don’t realize it’s contained and we have a farm that’s treated like a business.”
The couple, who have one full-time employee, are acutely aware of the stench that they say is no different from the byproduct of a pig farm or dairy. That’s why anybody who enters the maggot barn – even just for a minute, to grab a forgotten tool – must shower in the connected restroom before they leave the property or enter the house or a car.
“Sometimes we take another shower when we get home,” Dennis Ponsness said. “We call it the second washing.”
Three years ago the couple built a new facility with a high-tech ventilation system to help reduce the smell and prevent workers from breathing too much ammonia – the main culprit assaulting the olfactory glands.
The white, wiggly fly larvae excrete ammonia when they eat fresh fish scraps. The ammonia, which is caustic enough to curl copper, is the maggots’ natural way of protecting their food from competing bacteria. Of course, there’s also the smell of fish, but it has nothing on the ammonia fumes that after 19 years can still cause Dennis Ponsness’ face to redden and his eyes to weep.
When the business started, the maggot farm was up the hill, next to the house. One stray wind and the house filled with the smell of decay. The couple’s children refused to bring friends home. Pam Ponsness admits she gagged a lot before she got used to the foul air.
Even with the new facility, some people still stay away from Forked Tree Ranch, a former seed potato farm. When Pam’s daughter, April Near, had her wedding reception at the farm one cousin refused to attend because of the smell – even though the Ponsnesses shut down production so there were no maggots feeding on fish and no smell.
On a recent visit to the farm, Near, 31, was in the maggot barn screening sawdust from thousands of squirmy grubs to ready them for shipping to bait sellers across the country and in Canada.
Employee Amber Avery, 18, poured scoops of mature maggots mixed with sawdust and fish scraps into a separator. Neither woman wore the charcoal respirator offered to – and gladly accepted by – visitors.
The maggots that are cooled and shipped year-round for fish bait are only half of the operation. Selling bluebottle flies for crop pollination is the other part – and an entrepreneurial surprise.
A Caldwell, Idaho, plant breeder saw a 1992 newspaper article on the Ponsnesses’ bait business and called the couple, wanting to use the flies that maggots eventually become to pollinate crops. Flies naturally pollinate plants in the wild while they eat nectar, which collects on their hairy legs. Unlike bees, which get claustrophobic, flies don’t mind living and working inside greenhouses. The other benefit is that they are “disposable” and have a short life span.
Recently the farm shipped 44 pounds of maggots to Italy.
A maggot’s life starts in the farm’s fly room, where 10 cages buzz with 3,500 bluebottle flies each. Within 12 hours, the flies will lay 2 million white, gooey eggs on fish scraps. These aren’t ordinary houseflies, which don’t lay eggs on meat. The eggs are put in trays in a warm, dark grow room with a mixture of ground, fresh fish slop and sawdust. Within 24 hours, the eggs hatch into larvae; they grow into full-size maggots in seven days. Every 12 hours the maggots are fed fish. Each tray of about 200,000 maggots gobbles up about 275 pounds a week.The maggots destined for bait shops are cleaned and separated from fish and sawdust in a modified seed cleaner. They can sit dormant for a week, refrigerated, waiting to be shipped.
The maggots that will complete the cycle and become flies to pollinate crops are stored in warm bins, where they cocoon and become pupae. The pupae are shipped to crop growers. They’ll hatch into flies within 48 hours if kept at 80 degrees.
The farm is a job, but also a therapy of sorts for the Ponsness family.
Dennis Ponsness’ father, Lloyd, started the family’s maggot adventure by growing a few wigglers so he could fish without buying bait.
The hobby brought him out of a years-long depression, rekindling his interest in life.
Pam and Dennis Ponsness married in 1987 and decided to take on the maggot business at their place a couple of years later.
Dennis Ponsness is a recovering alcoholic who finds solace working with the maggots, he said. The business also gives the couple the flexibility to minister to other people with addictions.
Said Dennis Ponsness: “I guess the Lord wants us to be maggot farmers.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.