Agricultural Possibilities in Hagerman

By / Photography By Guy Hand | January 03, 2014
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James Reed and Lemons

I always seem to bump into James Reed in forests of baby greens, verdant citrus groves, or some other slightly surreal version of Eden. Today it’s under the broad leaves of a banana tree; its clusters of fruit hanging over our heads like heavy, yellow chandeliers.

Reed, with his handsomely etched face and searching eyes, fits my vision of a storied equatorial explorer. But Reed's explorations haven’t been imagined. In his younger days, he traveled the world, mostly on foot, spending years in places like Asia, India, Nepal, and the South Pacific. So there’s really nothing surreal about finding him under a banana tree—apart from the fact that it’s the dead of winter and this tree is rooted in the hot-springs-tempered soil of a Hagerman Valley greenhouse.

“I became a searcher of hot springs,” Reed says of his years of travel and particularly admired the traditions surrounding onsens, or Japanese hot springs. “Onsens in Japan are where people go to rejuvenate and revitalize,” he says of the beautiful retreats. “With my background in the Japanese martial arts [Reed has also earned a Black Belt], I liked the whole vibe, and so that, in some sense, steers and informs what we do here.”

Here is a hot-springs-endowed, five-acre farm that James and wife Leslee Reed purchased in the geothermal-rich Hagerman Valley in 2007. They bought it because Reed is also one of Idaho’s most active proponents of locally grown, ecologically friendly food systems and, for years, has advocated using Idaho’s extensive geothermal resources to extend and diversify its agriculture. They call the place Onsen Farm.

I first interviewed James Reed on a bitter December day in 2008 while comfortably sheltered in another Hagerman-area greenhouse. A founding member of Idaho’s Bounty, Reed had rented space in a complex of otherwise empty commercial greenhouses used to grow bedding plants and cut flowers. “We’ve leased about 7,000 square feet,” he said at the time, “and we’re growing food here; it’s the first time food has been grown in these greenhouses for maybe 30 years.”

His plan was to raise lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens to give Idaho’s Bounty a fresh winter crop to offer their online clientele. The place smelled like warm soil, the lettuce so fresh it squeaked. Later that day, he showed me another geothermal-fueled Eden: a neighbor’s dense forest of citrus trees—oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines—all heavy with fruit. On that day Reed proved to me that the possibilities for winter food production in Idaho are nearly limitless.

But even then Reed was cautious: “It remains to be seen if it’s economical to raise food in greenhouses,” he had said.

At the time it wasn’t. No matter how local, fresh, and flavorful that crazy assortment of winter produce was, it couldn’t compete against the annual onslaught of cheap, industrial produce trucked in from California, Florida, and Mexico. The greens didn’t pencil out, and the neighbor’s property is now on the market, the future of its citrus grove in question.

But James Reed is nothing if not resilient. Today he thinks Idaho consumers are more eager to purchase local, winter crops than ever before. “I’m just naive enough,” he says, “to think we can still make a difference.”

The Reeds are now concentrating their energies on Onsen Farm— planting, landscaping, and building nothing less than a model farm for the future, but also developing an agricultural learning center to share the possibilities. In November they held their first ambitious educational event: a sold-out, six-day-long, seed school that drew people from around the country. They hope to eventually offer those kinds of classes and workshops monthly. They’ve also erected three geothermal greenhouses with close to 8,000 square feet of growing space that, along with the banana, includes young lime, lemon, tangerine, guava, pomegranate, and fig trees, plus leafy greens and an aquaponics system. They sell produce through Idaho’s Bounty now and plan to offer a winter CSA next year.

“What we’re trying to do here,” Reed says, “is not only create an economy through what we do on our farm to sustain Leslee and me, but also bringing people in, giving them the confidence to take a stab at one of these emerging [agricultural] opportunities.”

Reed admits the banana tree may not be one of those opportunities: So far it takes up too much greenhouse space for the number of bananas it produces (enough, though, for Leslee to bake the occasional banana tart). It is, however, an excellent symbol of possibilities—a phrase I’d say perfectly fits James Reed himself.

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