Growing for eye appeal
Before farming on their own, Ian and Kelsey Kilgore spent time on a variety of farms, learning the fine points of growing vegetables. When they served as interns on a 40-acre organic produce farm, the owner rented five acres to the young farmers.
“He taught us a lot,” Ian recalled. “We learned about cultivating with a tractor, more about organic practices and how to grow crops on a larger scale for wholesale. He encouraged us to start our own farm.”
After one year, the Kilgores moved back to Kelsey’s family farm in Marsing, Idaho, where they grew produce for the co-op in Boise and the Boise Farmers Market. Spending time at farmers markets cemented the market concept for the young couple. Today, they grow a variety of crops on leased acreage as well as winter squash, potatoes and sweet corn on additional acreage on Kelsey’s family farm.
The first year they farmed on their own, Ian served on the board of the Boise Farmers Market. At the time, the board was working toward establishing a permanent location for the market – a plan that will likely be fulfilled in the next three to five years.
Although Ian isn’t currently on the board, he learned how farmers markets entice customers and obtain funds to operate and grow. “It was a real eye-opener to find out how it pays to gather funds for a nonprofit organization,” he said.
The Kilgores farm along the Snake River on good soil that retains moisture. Proximity to the river allows them to irrigate directly from the river. Although they’ve grown on plastic with drip tape in the past, Ian wants to use less plastic and eliminate the tape. “We want to switch to overhead watering,” he said. “It should also help cool down the crops during hot weather.”
Ian explained the farm’s use of organic growing methods, with certification through Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). “The certifier is local,” he said, adding that CNG certification is less costly than USDA organic certification. “It’s more for growers who have direct customers. USDA organic certification is good for wholesale, and we’ll probably have that in the future.”
Some of the crops the Kilgores offer can be grown year-round, including greens. “With the high tunnels and covers we can push certain crops,” said Ian. “Right now we’re planting fall and winter crops including arugula and radishes outside, but those can be covered.”
In the greenhouse, they plant spinach, chard, bok choi and more arugula. Ian is also growing green onions for Thanksgiving harvest. In addition to these late-season crops, the Kilgores take winter squash and potatoes to market through autumn.
One of True Roots’ most popular crops is heirloom tomatoes, which are grown outside. “We grow about 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes,” said Ian. “Other producers have been growing them inside, so we’re going to try an early crop of tomatoes next season.”
Since the Kilgores had experience growing flowers for wholesale, they now grow flowers for the farmers market. Rather than making bouquets, Ian and Kelsey display flowers in bundles so customers can select what they want.
At the end of the outdoor growing season, if any soil is open, Ian’s goal is to establish a cover crop with a mix that includes rye, turnips and grasses. “We also let crops winter kill,” he said. “Then we’ll prep the beds in early February.”
Like other growers who use organic practices, the Kilgores’ biggest challenge is weeding. “Naturally grown recognizes regenerative farming practices,” said Ian. “We would like to move in that direction with less plastic. This year we had no plastic mulch – I’ve been mowing the walkways and cultivating between the plants to build up the beds.”
Their packhouse includes walk-in cold storage. Refrigeration is maintained in two temperature zones: one at 39º to 40º, the other at 50º to 55º. “Having cold storage helps keep the farm going during the week,” said Ian. “Keeping everything on ice is a lot of extra inputs and work, but with good cold storage, we can harvest when crops are ready.”
The 2022 growing season was the second for True Roots’ CSA, a 20-week subscription that runs May through October. Ian said when unfamiliar vegetables are offered, people ask about them and request recipes. He and Kelsey always try to help customers learn about new vegetables by comparing flavors to other more familiar vegetables. Customers can pick up their weekly share at a designated location or at the Boise Farmers Market.
Ian knows customers like to see a full display at market, so he and Kelsey create abundant displays that are similar to what customers see at grocery stores. “We stack everything high,” he said. “I try to think about the color spectrum – we don’t want everything green in the same place because it all blends together. We break it up so the contrast creates eye appeal.”
The Kilgores were fortunate to gain insight about selling at farmers markets from a marketer who had extensive experience working with a commercial retailer. “We learned about customers and how they look at certain things, the position of items and how the corner area is the most powerful part of the display,” said Ian. “I’ll use that to draw in customers … Sometimes I’ll place items that don’t move a lot on the corner to bring people in. We don’t want to copy the grocery store, but we’re definitely trying to give customers a familiar experience.”
They’ve also learned what not to do at market, such as placing all bagged produce in one area. “From 50 feet away it looks like a pile of bags,” he said. “In summer or on a warm day in spring or fall, the bags sweat in the sun. When we have a lot of something, we offer bagged quantities of produce, but we’re careful about displaying it.”
Another important lesson is that people tend to visit the market earlier in the day in hot weather and later when it’s cold. “That narrows the selling time,” said Ian. “We have to keep that in mind.”
The Kilgores agree it’s critical to be interactive at a farmers market. “It’s important that first-time customers have a good experience,” said Ian. “You can’t just sit there – if someone looks your way, at least say hi.” Ian draws on what he learned after having served on the board, where discussions involved topics such as when the market has the most traffic, what people are purchasing and who the customers are.
As they finish out the 2022 season, the Kilgores are looking ahead to next year when they’ll grow more produce on the farm where Kelsey grew up. They’ll have ample acreage for seasonal crops as well as space for perennial crops such as fruits and berries.
“I love answering people’s questions about growing,” said Ian. “They aren’t always going to buy something, but I like to help them grow their own food and have a successful crop. We know our business is going to grow – there’s a lot of support for local agriculture.”
Visit True Roots Organics online at truerootsorganics.com.
by Sally Colby
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