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Idaho Agri-Adventures: Trailing the Sheep

SheepUnless you live in the western part of the United States (which I don’t), you probably think of Idaho as the place where potatoes grow. It’s true, the state is the largest potato producer in America, but I found many other agricultural products there. Idaho ranks among the top producing states for onions, peas, plums, mint, peaches, cherries, apples and honey. Moscow, Idaho is known as the Lentil Capital of the World. Who knew? Apparently long days, cool nights, rich volcanic soil and efficient irrigation help crops to flourish in The Gem State, so named for its abundance of natural resources and scenic areas.

I flew to Boise, the state capital, to participate in Taste Idaho: an agricultural/culinary tour. An afternoon pub cycle crawl got me started. Members of my group climbed aboard Pedals & Pints, a 10-man bicycle that requires participants to peddle jointly through the city. You stop along the way and taste a few of the local craft brews. If you haven’t tried one of these group cycle tours, you should. It comes with great camaraderie and lots of friendly waves from people on the street. My favorite brewery was Boise Brewing for their inviting atmosphere and casual outdoor space.cers

Basque dancers

Idaho has a large and colorful Basque population.

Boise has a large population of Basques, the ethnic group from Northern Spain/France. On my first night, I visited The Basque Market and enjoyed a family-style meal, especially the hearty beef stew and a rice dish with beans. More entrees kept appearing on the table, including chicken and fish. The accompanying Idaho wine was a delightful surprise: Cinder’s viognier introduced by charismatic winemaker Melanie Krause. The vintage, bade with 100% Idaho grapes, featured a lovely crispness and nice balance.

Apples, Cows, Trout & More

The next day we picked apples at Symm’s Fruit Ranch in Caldwell. Symm’s owns more than 5,000 acres where they nurture a remarkable variety of fruits. Crops ripen at different times in the year, keeping employees busy throughout the seasons. We also toured Symm’s packing plant where workers scurried to grade, box, and package the produce. It’s quite a massive operation, and I admit, the assembly line made me think of one of my favorite “I Love Lucy” episodes.

apple sorting

Did you know Idaho is one of the top producers of potatoes, onions, peas, plums, mint, peaches, cherries, apples and honey?

Lunch was an outdoor treat at nearby Ste. Chapelle Winery, which boasts a gorgeous chateau as its headquarters/tasting room. The building design is based on Sainte Chapelle Cathedral in Paris minus the historic stained glass windows. The winery is Idaho’s largest, producing about 150,000 cases per year. You are welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy their yummy wine on the patio.

Like a three-year-old, I marveled at the massive harvesting machines and got an up-close peek at grapes being rinsed and processed. We met yet another woman winemaker, Maurine Johnson, who manages to keep a lot of wine drinkers happy.

I’d never been to a cattle ranch or feedlot before, so didn’t know what to expect on our next stop. Boise Valley Feeders is where cattle are fattened up before slaughter. The livestock are fenced in large pens with plenty of access to fresh water. I would never have imagined that 23,000 cattle, each weighing over 1,000 pounds, could be so quiet. Seems the term “fat and happy” might be appropriately applied here. I hate to think about butchering, but then again, a fine filet with delicate marbling makes a divine meal.

baby cow

Mothers fuss over a newly-born dairy calf.

If you are buying rainbow trout anywhere except directly from a fisherman, you are likely buying fish raised in Buhl, Idaho. Clear Springs, in Buhl, is the national supplier of trout. The Research and Development building seemed like a scene out of a science-fiction movie: massive fish egg production, hatching tanks ,and outdoor pools for raising the fish. They have an underwater viewing window that gives visitors a terrific look at the trout.

We also stopped into the R&D labs of the largest American-style cheese manufacturer in the U.S. at Glanbia Foods’ Cheese Innovation Center. To understand the size of this operation just think about 315,000 cows milked 365 days per year yielding 2.3 million pounds or 1,043 tons of cheese per day!

The day’s lunch featured flaky, mouth-watering trout from Clear Springs (naturally) cooked and served at the swanky Elevation 486 in Twin Falls. The restaurant overlooks the spectacular Snake River Canyon and the famous Perrine Bridge used by B.A.S.E. jumpers. Sadly, it was a windy day, so no one was jumping. Nonetheless, the panoramic vista was invigorating.

Next stop was Si-Ellen Dairy Farms, a family owned business (like all diary farms in the state) for nearly 100 years. Dairy is Idaho’s top agricultural product, so the residents drink a lot of milk. I cannot recall a trip where I was offered milk as a drink option.

We arrived at the dairy farm in Jerome just in time to witness a birth in the barn. Wow. It all happened fast and Mama cow didn’t appear in distress. Of course, the big-eyed baby was darling. The Si-Ellen staff manages 5,000 cows so occasionally as many as 50 calves are born on one day. Much of the milk goes to a Chobani yogurt plant in Twin Falls.

Ste Chapelle winery

Idaho has a thriving wine industry.

A bus escorted us around the complex, and I soon realized that running a dairy farm requires high tech computerized monitoring. An expert oversees operations such as designing the feed mix, scheduling the feedings and breedings, veterinary care, and, of course, milking the cows twice a day.

In the milking barn, I watched how the mechanical apparatus speeds up the milking process, but the human touch is still required to attach the machine to the animal. If you’re a city slicker like me, the milking barn is quite a fascinating place.

Sun Valley Resort and Sheep!

Last stop on my trip was the renowned Sun Valley, an all-season resort flourishes in 250+ days of sunshine a year. Sun Valley Resort is the granddaddy, the first U.S. ski resort, founded in 1936 by W. Averell Harriman. The little town of Ketchum, dating back to 1880’s silver mining days, is within easy strolling distance. It’s a postcard-perfect ski town: alluring boutique hotels many in the chalet style, small family-owned restaurants, sporting goods stores (think moose heads on the walls), high-end gourmet grocery shops, and numerous bars and watering holes. (No surprise that Hemmingway lived in the area.)

Sun Vly

The majestic Sun Valley is home to the nation’s first ski resort.

My group ate the most incredible dinner of Wagyu filet from Snake River Farms in the cozy Ketchum Grill. The meat cut like butter and melted in my mouth. I felt like I was eating a holiday feast, as Christmas is the only time I eat beef this good. Treat yourself and order directly from their website.

sheep and dogs

The Trailing of the Sheep Festival celebrates gathering the herds from summer pastures.

The perfect end to my agri-adventure was attending the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. The festival grew from a sheepherding event that’s been happening for about 150 years. Sheep must be moved from high summer pastures to lower grazing areas in the fall. The path passes through Ketchum, so residents made it into a celebration and it’s a wonderfully fun sight to behold.

Since I love photography, I arose very early and was escorted to a mountain outside of town, in the Wood River Valley. The sheep herders would bring the flock of about 1,500 animals over the mountain pass and eventually parade them through town. I climbed the steep hills, waiting and waiting for the first glimpse. No sheep. Eventually, we got word that the creatures changed their route and were already below, just off the road.

The onlookers and photographers scurried down and, despite the snafus, I captured the rush of fur as bleating ba-bah sounds filled the air. What a wondrous spectacle. Lambs of all sizes mostly dirty white in color, swarmed together. I was told they add one black sheep for every 10 white to aid counting. Sheepdogs circled round keeping the rambunctious flock moving in unison and herders on horseback or walking shouted and whipped red flags in the air to encourage all.

We returned to the van and drove into Ketchum to wait for the celebration. Talk about hometown spirit; the parade featured local boy and girl scout troops, local clubs, Basque dancers, Highland bagpipers, horseback regiments and the Bishop and the local priest standing in the middle of the madness to bless the herd. Oh my!

home town Basque parade

The Festival’s parade is a hometown affair.

Hilarity broke out when the sheep pack didn’t want to move forward. Then a few ornery critters broke away, turned around and ran in the opposite direction. It’s quirky Americana at its best. This multi-day festival, as fantastic as its location, includes lamb cooking lessons, fiber/knitting/dyeing classes, a Sheep Folklife Fair and sheepdog trials Put it on your calendar (early to mid-October) and head to Idaho.

I almost forgot to mention the luscious lamb barbecue that follows the parade.  Foodies- this one’s for you and in fact, I discovered that Idaho is one fab foodie fling. — –Story and photos by Debi Lander, RFT Contributor, bylandersea.com

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Debi Lander

Debi Lander is a freelance journalist and photographer specializing in travel, food and lifestyle. She currently calls St. Augustine, Florida home, but frequently follows an unrelenting desire to get away and explore. While on the road, she enjoys tasting local cuisine from hole-in-the-wall eateries to fine dining and wine establishments.Debi is a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association and Society of American Travel Writers. Her website, www.bylandersea.com, features published stories from her global adventures and a link to her travel journal: The Luggage Diaries.Her food blog, Bylandersea-Food Tales, offers restaurant, product, and cookbook reviews as well as recipe triumphs and failures in her own kitchen.