Somewhere in northern Idaho, a farm rests snugly surrounded by legions of pine trees. Though small, the family-run establishment consists of two houses and a few healthy fields with which to grow fresh food. Recently, like many other family farms, the future of the little alcove became less certain when a ‘For Sale’ sign was pegged into the fertile ground.
That sign was on the mind of Boise State graduate and Adjunct Instructor David Jonathan McKerracher as he took his seat at the Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture Symposium on Dec. 3, 2016. As McKerracher listened to the speakers, he had what he described as a “moment of clarity.”
“They had this keynote speaker from a local, family-model farm,” McKerracher said. “He was saying one of the reasons family farms are unsustainable is because people are letting their children go play sports at the local schools. They’re not keeping them on the farm.”
This sentiment coming from the center stage took McKerracher back to his upbringing at that little farm in northern Idaho, to thoughts of cultural isolation and the time he later spent immersed in the world of academia at Boise State.
“A lot of things became visible right then. I suddenly became even more aware of why I was doing this,” McKerracher said.
Though he had been planning it for months, McKerracher understood with new certainty that his budding organization, the Turtle Island Cooperative Farm and Research Center, was a necessity—and he was going to do anything he could to purchase his childhood home to use as the organization’s central location.
The Turtle Island Co-op is a nonprofit organization hoping to create an experimental community where researchers, artists and other professionals will work to maintain a small farm along with a bed and breakfast to earn their keep as they explore their academic pursuits.
According to McKerracher, though the idea for the Turtle Island Co-op has been forming for the past six years, the project began to truly take off in the last few months, as a volunteer staff of roughly 20 people have jumped on board.
“It’s been a dream of (McKerracher’s) and others’ for a while now,” said Junior Interdisciplinary Studies Major Sammi Lowman, who joined the project early on as a graphic and web designer. “It’s been so exciting how fast things have been moving and how many people have gotten on board with the same dream—to integrate sustainable living with an academic community.”
One of the Turtle Island Co-op’s main goals is to bridge the gap between academic life and the rural lifestyle.
“The reason society decided to start dividing labor in the first place was so we could make more time in our days,” McKerracher said. “But what are we doing it all for if only a few of us are able to engage in academic pursuits— the fine arts? Why should that only be delegated to the few who are caught up in teaching it?”
McKerracher went on to further illustrate the societal divide between those growing our food and those sometimes referred to as the “academic elite.” According to McKerracher, people in urban, academic communities are often concerned with where their food comes from, but would be hard pressed to create it for themselves.
“The problem is if we need more of these sustainable, local farms, we need more farmers,” McKerracher said. “We want more people to go into the fields to make us this food. Why don’t we just go do it? Because we’re spending all our time studying something we think is more interesting. Something less culturally isolating.”
McKerracher went on to explain that creating an academic farming community, would not only help to close this social divide, but also potentially solve the problem of the standard family farm’s sustainability.
“The number one problem with family farms across the nation is that nobody’s kids want to stay on the farm. I didn’t,” McKerracher said. “When I talk about wanting to go back, it’s not so I can continue this family model. It’s to create this new community model.”
Preparing the ground
In addition to cultural sustainability, the Turtle Island Co-op hopes to use permaculture methods to make the eventual center’s operations as clean and environmentally sustainable as possible. To achieve this goal, the Turtle Island Co-op brought on Boise State professor Ty Morrison to develop the project’s master plan.
“I’ve watched several organizations falter with lack of planning,” Morrison said. “If you don’t have a master plan with what you want to do with the property, most people will lose interest in it right away.”
Work on the master plan is currently focused on how the Turtle Island Co-op can most effectively utilize the water sources already available and further enrich the soil. According to Morrison, as long as it is done correctly, a farm is most sustainable when it takes a more natural approach.
“I would like for permaculture to prove by example that there are other approaches that don’t necessarily correspond with a full steam ahead attitude of using technology to solve all our problems,” said Morrison. “The fact of the matter is a handful of soil is the best energy storage system that has ever been identified. Plants and soil can harness the energy of the sun to produce something that we get back as energy, either by burning or eating it. How perfect is that system?”
This emphasis on healthy soil is shared by Dylan Hixson, a senior biology major who is hoping to further her research at the Turtle Island Co-op once it’s established and operational. Hixson was featured earlier this month in a short video on the organization’s YouTube channel.
In the video, Hixson discussed the issue of overfertilization, citing the excess of nitrogen as a major consequence of modern farming methods.
“This comes as a result of monocropping and not feeding and treating the soil—not using permaculture methods to integrate compost into the soil to feed it,” said Hixson.
Immediate and future goals
Though the people involved with the project share an enthusiasm for their academic goals to be fulfilled, the Turtle Island Co-op is, for now, focusing mainly on growth. In pursuit of organizing this effort, Philosophy Professor Ann Johnson was recently brought on board as manager.
“Right now, the two major priorities are marketing and fundraising,” said Johnson.
She went on to explain that though the Turtle Island Co-op has its sights on McKerracher’s old family farm, the purchase of the property isn’t a guarantee. The organization first needs donors who are willing to pledge enough money to buy the land.
According to Lowman, the fundraising goal has been set at $600,000, enough to purchase the farm and cover assets, rennovations and operational costs from six months to a year.
To spread the word, the Turtle Island Co-op will be launching a new website within the first week of February, followed by an Indiegogo page where those interested will be able to donate.
Though fundraising is typically a staple of nonprofit organizations, McKerracher expressed confidence in the Turtle Island Co-op’s goal of becoming financially self-sustaining.
“We want to be soliciting donations from an initial line of donors,” McKerracher said. “Because once it’s up and going, it must be self-sustaining. That’s a part of the research—showing this can be a self-sustaining model. Right now, we have a cursory business plan that shows with a minimum of two people living there, we would be able to meet our operating expenses.”
For now, there seems to be no shortage of academic individuals willing to fill those slots. Many of the students, faculty and community members putting the project together look forward to using the facility themselves in the future.
“We all share the idea that learning is a lifelong process,” Lowman said. “It’s never truly over.”