Farm to Market: Homestead Renaissance Along a Mountain Road
The small mountain town of McCall boasts a twice-per-week farmers market, something even the relative metropolis of Boise hasn’t been able to sustain. “The locals come on Wednesdays and the tourists come on Saturdays,” said Patsy Kelley, who’s been selling there for 25 years.
Perusing the tented smorgasbord, set against the stunning backdrop of Payette Lake, savvy shoppers will notice that most of the vendors hail from towns like Riggins and Sweet, while only a handful actually farm in McCall proper—the 5,000-foot-high, Zone 3 tourist mecca that constitutes one of Idaho’s most challenging growing climates. McCall routinely gets at least one frost in every month of the year and the ample wildlife that titillate tourists pose real threats to crops.
So who are these hardy mountain folk who brave the elements and forest wildlife to bring fresh vegetables to their mountain town? A drive down the aptly named Farm to Market Road introduced me to just about all of them.
First stop: Hobbit Hill Farm, where owners Bjornen and Isaac Babcock have been learning to make it work for five seasons now. They’ve built a rustic and beautiful life for themselves, living in a cozy yurt with a composting toilet and a damn fine root cellar for a refrigerator. They run a 15-member CSA, focusing on root crops and greens, in addition to selling at market. They are also working on training a team of donkeys as draft animals on their 60-acre farm.
“They teach you about patience,” Bjornen smiled, nuzzling one boy’s head.
Though the pair are no strangers to hard living—they made a documentary about their adventurous year-long honeymoon in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness—when I asked why they started trying to farm in McCall, Isaac quickly pointed at Bjornen.
“It’s her fault!” he laughed.
“It’s true,” she admitted. “I’ve always wanted to work with the dirt, to make food. It’s his fault we’re here, though! I’d done a little farming in Delaware, where I grew up, but it’s nothing like this.”
The couple is learning through trial and error what works and doesn’t in their environment. “After Labor Day, when everyone goes home, that’s when we show up with good produce,” Isaac said. But he was quick to add, “People say you can’t garden here, but look what the Finns did. They had major gardens here in the 1800s.”
One of the descendants of those “Finns,” the Finnish immigrants who initially settled McCall, lives down the road in the quaint town of Roseberry, on land settled by her great-grandparents.
Karla Miller grew up in Donnelly but spent much of her childhood on this land, and when she moved away for college, it never stopped being her home. So when her folks were at a crossroads, it seemed an obvious choice for her to come back.
Miller’s passion for her family’s homestead leaped out of her slight frame as she showed me around.
“Behind that ridge?” she pointed. “My granddad built a reservoir back there. And he built that barn,” she motioned to the stately structure off in the distance, “with logs he pulled out of our woodlot.”
“It makes me feel so lazy,” she chuckled. “I mean, what the hell have I done with my life?”
While most of the Millers’ land is in pasture leased for cattle ranching, Karla decided to focus on potatoes when she returned to farm.
“Potatoes are resilient, hardy and as stubborn as the people who moved here in the first place,” she said.
She grows 17 varieties, including some rare older types with higher nutritional content than their modern-bred counterparts. Her potatoes are well-known, gracing rafters’ plates on Canyon River Company tours and drawing crowds at the farmers market.
Nearby these relative young ’uns is High Country Gardens, which is run by Patsy and Dan Kelley and has been churning out vegetables, plant starts, fruit vinegars and herb salts for market for 25 years. Their impossibly cute homestead—with tidy raised beds, greenhouses and country charm—is a testament to what can be done in McCall if one puts in the time.
“We called it ‘Blister Flats,’” said Dan. “There were only three trees here when we bought it.” But, the couple had come from Stanley, quite possibly the only place in Idaho that beats McCall in the difficulty of growing, and Patsy thought she was in heaven.
Like her gardens, Patsy is almost impossibly cute, a five-foot-tall, sparkly eyed bundle. “I had soil here,” she said, motioning to her lush spread. “In Stanley it was just rock.”
The challenges of a particular place hold the seeds of their solutions, something all these farmers are finding in different ways. Whether through crop selection, fencing reinforcement, innovative greenhouses or hardy draft animals, each is carving out a niche and sharing their on-the-ground wisdom with the others. And their passion is contagious—more than once, while taking in the fresh air and the gorgeous scenery, I was tempted to head for the hills myself and make a go of it.
At age 75, Patsy is stepping into the role of mentor farmer to new generations of locals looking to learn. She’s thrilled to have a few younger folks in McCall taking up farming.
“It’s the renaissance of Farm to Market Road!” she cheered, raising her glass to her young compatriots.
Casey O’Leary is a writer and owner of Earthly Delights Farm, a humanpowered urban farm in Boise specializing in CSA vegetable production, retail seeds and on-farm education.