BUHL - An Idaho farm is using natural resources to grow veggies and even tropical fruit year-round, even in the middle winter. Onsen Farm is in the Magic Valley; in a stretch some people call the "miracle mile" because of the unique combination of hot and cold spring water available.
"We can create the seasons we like here," Onsen Farm co-owner James Reed said. "So we're able to do bananas and citrus and figs and different things you normally wouldn't think of in Idaho."
Filling the winter gap in local food supply
Seven years ago, Reed started Onsen Farm with his wife on a highly-prized, beautiful piece of land, with geothermal resources, including hot springs.
"That means we can farm in the winter. We have these greenhouses down here, and we're able to grow food throughout the winter simply because we can heat them very inexpensively using the water," Reed said.
Through their local food distribution co-op, the Reeds saw a need for local food in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the winter.
"I said, well I have some hot water, why don't we give it a try to supplement the winter season when there's not much around if you're interested in buying local food?" Reed said.
The 'minister of kale' explains how water = vegetable climate control
Now, the farm includes three greenhouses for growing food and James Loomis is the farm's manager, or as he calls himself "minister of kale." He says they mainly produce leafy greens like salad mixes, beet greens, spinach, and of course, kale.
The banana, fig and orange trees remain more for fun and experimentation, though Loomis says the bananas are some of the best he's had (but take a long time to ripen and aren't very cost-effective).
The available natural resources are all there, but harnessing the water has included a lot of experimentation and, adding onto the farm's sustainable concept, recycled parts.
"We just run our 130 degree water through the heat exchanger inside [the greenhouses], pull the air off with fans. It's that elegant, it's that simple," Loomis said. "Since our water is naturally under pressure, we have a really low energy demand, just a little bit of electricity to pull heat over the fans, and slam dunk ... I almost feel guilty. I feel like we're cheating!"
The 'miracle mile' has not just hot water... but cold... naturally
In the winter, that hot water keeps the greenhouses warm, which makes sense. However, Loomis says the greater challenge in their year-round farming is keeping the greenhouses cool in summer. That's where the "miracle mile" comes in.
"Hot and cold running water without any pumps or utilities...The miracle mile," Reed said.
So in the summer, the system runs on natural cold spring water and cools the greenhouses. Loomis explains they keep the greenhouses 50 degrees at night and 70 degrees during the day: "It is perpetual spring."
"This zone we're in here is like the holy trinity of sustainability. Not only do we have the geothermal water and the cool fresh water coming in, we're also in the ideal solar zone of the United States, and we have reliable wind as well," Loomis said.
Adding aquaponics and answering the demand for local food
Recently, the farm installed an aquaponics system to sustainably raise fish and utilize the waste to grow vegetables more quickly. Watch the video below to see the new set-up, as explained by Loomis (video unavailable for mobile users).
While a lot of this farm is about experimentation, learning, and teaching others about sustainable farming, the winter farming of local produce is certainly in demand and is a business.
"The local food revolution has really gotten strong over the last few years," Loomis said. "What all the big boys were telling me [when I went this route] was if you can hit that high, top shelf level of quality, produce sells itself, and really, it does."
"We are just learning every year how to do a better job and expand our production. We have an unlimited, it seems, market. And our biggest frustration is not being able to service it at this point," Reed said.
Onsen offers workshops and learning opportunities. To learn more about the farm, click here.