Don’t Miss: Love For Local Farmers

By on April 11, 2018

It takes a village to create a biodynamic farm in the Tetons

After an East Coast field trip, Teton Full Circle Farm will plant deeper roots in the Tetons.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Teton Full Circle Farm almost relocated to New England, taking its organic lush greens, bright veggies, fresh cut flowers and pasture-raised meats with it.

Farm owners Erika Eschholz and Ken Michael wanted desperately to run a regenerative biodynamic farm in the Tetons but the seven acres of leased farmland in Victor they worked on brought too many challenges.

They wanted their own slice of land and a place to call home with good soil and reliable water—a hand-dug well would do—with a supportive community and affordable land prices.

But Teton Valley prices, especially a swath of land big enough to develop, skyrocketed. The couple couldn’t find a place in the Tetons.

Eschholz said that after two decades in the valley, she’s seen the area feel the pressure of development. The prime soils at the base of the mountains were built into subdivisions or into second or third homes.

“The high-quality ground for growing food is disappearing,” she said.

The couple reluctantly expanded their search.

“At one point we got pretty desperate and started looking out East,” Michael said. “There’s all this affordable land out there.”

In Maine, where Eschholz’s parents live, they found the perfect space, but were a day too late for the application process. They booked flights and traveled through Maine and Vermont looking for land that would check all the boxes. One never turned up, but they noticed agricultural land prices were affordable.

They learned it was thanks to the work of the Maine Farmland Trust. The land trust buys up agricultural properties and places conservation easements on them. This lowers the price and protects the land in perpetuity for farming.

“That really gave us hope that despite the climate of development prices that we could potentially find a piece of land and put a conservation easement on it,” Eschholz said. “It protects it forever for the next generation.”

Less than a month after returning home from their East Coast scouting mission, the couple received a message from a neighbor in Teton Valley.

“There’s a piece of property in Victor,” Eschholz remembered it saying.

On July 4, 2016, the couple looked at the 21-acre farm growing conventional alfalfa.

“Within a few minutes we knew we needed to farm this place,” she said.

The land is located at the edge of the valley, where the best soil lies. There are glacial deposits and wind-dropped soils. The rich earth was two-feet deep in some places. The farm checked all the right boxes. This could be the regenerative sustainable farm they had dreamed of.

 

“We really went out on a limb and took a risk that we would have enough community support. That was the gamble we took and we’re in the process of seeing if it will pay off.”

“It had the same wonderful community we were hesitant to leave in the first place,” Eschholz said.

The price of the land, though, was set at development rates, out of reach for the farmers. But they remembered Maine’s model of conserving agricultural property and reached out to the Teton Regional Land Trust, which works to preserve land in Eastern Idaho. They were also able to apply for a low-interest mortgage loan from the USDA Farm Service Agency.

In November 2016, they pulled together a down payment. Now the Teton Regional Land Trust is working to raise $150,000 to pay for the conservation easement. Those funds will be used to pay for the loan. The land trust’s easement requires the land owners give up the right to develop the land.

“It’s preserving the natural heritage of the Teton Basin and the way of life here,” conservation specialist Renee Hiebert said. “It’s protecting prime soils and ways to produce food.”

But the funds have to be raised by October for the deal to go through. So far, $20,000 has been raised.

“We really went out on a limb and took a risk that we would have enough community support,” Michael said. “That was the gamble we took and we’re in the process of seeing if it will pay off.”

The organic farm will open in 2019. It has enough room for a hearty crop of annual and perennial crops like carrots, potatoes, pumpkins, raspberries and strawberries. There will be woody shrubs with currants and gooseberries and native trees will provide protection for the crops. An orchard with apples, plums and cherries will thrive too and dairy cows, steers for beef, pigs and chickens will graze in an open pasture. Another section of the farm will be reserved for hay production and eventually annual crops of grain to feed the animals.

Having local farms is the backbone of Slow Food in the Tetons, a partner organization. Without them, executive director Scott Steen said the organization probably wouldn’t exist.

“Local food is the cornerstone of culture and community,” Steen said. “Knowing where your food comes from should be a right, not a luxury.”

It’s an intimate connection to know a farmer or work in the earth.

“I know it’s popular and hip too, but there’s something really grounding about knowing where your food comes from,” he said. Locally grown food is also practical. It’s one way people can reduce their carbon footprint, buying food that doesn’t travel across the country or ocean to arrive in the valley.

Eschholz said it’s a common misconception that there will always be farmland in Teton Valley. But the majority of available land is located in the center of the valley in windy and cold areas.

“It just hasn’t clicked yet that we could run out of the good farmland,” she said. “Young farmers like ourselves are priced out and have to leave. If we want to keep the local food movement going, with diversity and variety, then we have to start protecting these places.”

There are intangible benefits to having local farmland and food—better food, an engaged community and local economic impacts. 

“Our ultimate hope is that we have a lot more of these—our best agricultural lands—protected forever,” Michael said. “We don’t want to lose this resource as the valley grows.” 

A screening of the documentary Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry will help raise funds for Teton Full Circle Farm’s conservation project. The event is 7 p.m. Saturday at Center for the Arts with a silent auction and discussion on the local food movement. $15 includes a farm-fresh salad. Check TetonFullCircleFarm.org for more info.

 


About Erika Dahlby

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