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A Taste of Idaho
Specialty foods capitalize on state's bounty

Excerpted from Horizon Air Magazine, Seattle, WA, October 2003
By Martin Johncox

Idaho. Potatoes. As in meat and potatoes. It's a tasty image, but incomplete. • These days, the meat could easily be $41-a-pound pedigreed Kobe, and the potatoes could be exotic, dime-size Peruvians with purple insides. • Idaho has been building a reputation as a place to grow and sell upscale edibles: organic instant food, grain types that date back to biblical times, goat cheese and enough unpronounceable herbs to flummox Martha Stewart.

Many people who produce specialty foods start out as hobbyists or farmers, or they have a secret family recipe they want to put to use, says Mandy Thompson, a marketing specialist with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Her job is to consult with people who want to enter the specialty-foods business, and she says she keeps busy these days.

"There's a lot more to Idaho than just meat and potatoes. Idaho produces more than 140 agricultural commodities," Thompson says. "How many places can you get pineapple cilantro mustard? Consumers are always interested in something unique, new and interesting."

For example, Sandstone Farms near Kuna, a few miles south of Boise, offers jellies made with wine, while Sun Valley Mustard offers products with Chardonnay wine, rosemary, ale and tarragon. Mom's Mustard in Boise offers the pineapple-cilantro blend mentioned by Thompson.

Priest Lake Wildbeary in Sandpoint produces just about every possible variation of huckleberry syrup, jam, jelly and marmalade (no, there's no huckleberry mustard - yet). Idaho's many vineyards produce the most well-known gourmet food - fine wine - but specialty foods can also be as down-home as Grandpa's Southern Barbecue in Idaho Falls and in Arco, west of Idaho Falls, where a former Kentucky couple make pork ribs and chicken with sauce from a spicy family recipe, and also serve turnip greens and baked beans.

Specialty foods are a growing business, with $25 billion in annual sales, according to Packaged Facts, a market-research company in New York.

Ron Tanner, vice president for communications and education with the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in New York, projects an increase in sales of 4 percent to 6 percent a year. Twenty years ago, his organization had 350 members; today it has 2,500. Even though the national economy has been challenged, people still want indulgences, and specialty foods can give that indulgence and still remain affordable, Tanner says.

Idaho has plenty of crops from which to make specialty foods. In addition to its famous potatoes, the state ranks in the top five in the nation in production of lentils, sugar beets, barley, mint, hops, dairy products, spring wheat, trout, plums and prunes. Some of the foods aren't even meant for people, such as organic grains to feed dairy cows that produce organic milk.

Competitive pressures within the farm industry are making it more and more appealing to produce specialty foods, says Jake Putnam, spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau. "Everyone grows wheat and potatoes and onions, but the problem is that everyone is doing it. With a specialty or organic food, the farmer can distinguish himself."

The diverse nature of specialty foods demonstrates the adaptability of the companies that produce them. Competition is fierce; consumers are fickle; and government regulations and international-trade policies are constantly changing the playing field. It's a balsamic-eat-balsamic world out there, and only companies that adapt to the times will succeed.

Gourmet and specialty foods may be organic foods, and Idaho has had an organic-certification program since 1990. Eleven farmers signed up in the beginning, but now there are 132 certified organic farmers. The state had about 106,000 acres in organic production in 2001, with total revenues of $5.5 million. The Gem State is one of the top five states in the nation for organic acreage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Organic foods are raised without chemicals, pesticides, artificial fertilizers or growth hormones. At least on savvy company, Paradise Farm Organics, is blending the wholesomeness of organic foods with the convenience that modern consumers desire.

Based in Moscow, Idaho, the company operates a farm, runs a mail-order produce business and manufactures instant, just-add-water organic foods. It also operates an organic-farming-and-marketing apprentice school.

Founder MaryJane Butters bought a 5-acre farm on the Palouse prairie in 1985 to grow food for her family, but she and her husband, Nick Ogle, soon turned that passion into a business that now does about $500,000 in sales and annually and employs the equivalent of 12 full-time employees.

A major part of the company's business is instant food for backpackers, says Ogle. REI carries Paradise's dried backpacking foods under the "MaryJanesFarm Backcountry Food" label.

"People eat them at home, and at the office, and while traveling - even at the airport, where they can pull them out of their briefcases or purses and enjoy a healthy meal," Ogle says. "Red Pesto Pasta, Wild Forest Mushroom Couscous and Hot 'n Creamy Cereal are the biggest sellers; all you have to do is add hot water."

The farm uses its own produce and buys from local organic farmers when needed. Ogle says that's part of the appeal of Paradise Farm products and organic foods in general.

"Idaho is known for clean air and clean water and friendly people," he says. "The perception is that Idaho is a healthier place with a healthier lifestyle, and that's part of the package we sell."