Nearly 50 acres of orchard land at the base of Schweitzer Mountain off Boyer Road is recognizable to locals as the former Sandpoint Orchard, with its diverse selection of varieties. Today, the orchard and adjoining acreage make up the Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center (SOAC)—an organization with the University of Idaho Extension Office that provides a hands-on research and education facility for students and community members.
Established in August 2018 through support of a USDA grant and a generous donation from the Pence family, SOAC now covers 66 acres, including a certified organic orchard specializing in heritage apple varieties, dormitories, a retreat center and additional land for growing and research.
“Our primary goal is to attract organic agriculture research, as we are the university's only certified organic research station,” says Kyle Nagy, superintendent and orchard operations manager for SOAC.
The center creates an opportunity for new educational experiences in the community and college for people dedicated to sustainable and organic growing. Up to this point, these have mostly included projects that relate to soil health and pest management, but Nagy sees opportunity for much more.
“We understand that we are not in an agricultural hub of the state, so we want to pursue work that is applicable to Idaho's statewide agricultural goals, but we also want to focus on projects and research that are meaningful to North Idaho residents,” he explains.
The unique climate of the Inland Northwest region makes the center a prime location for helping to determine which crops and varieties will do well here. The center’s wide variety of apple, plum, pear and cherry trees helps determine which are best suited to Sandpoint.
Sixty-eight varieties of apples currently exist in the orchard—mostly heirloom varieties that can only be found in a small selection of orchards across the country. Because of this, and its dedication to further research and preservation of heirloom varieties, SOAC established the Heritage Orchard Conference in May 2019, which brought around 70 people in from around the Pacific Northwest.
The second annual conference was planned for this fall, but due to the pandemic, SOAC has had to shift gears. The result is an exciting opportunity for the local community to learn from home, as the conference will now be offered as a free webinar series, which started August 19 and extends through April 2021.
The webinar will feature a live-stream every third Wednesday of each month, featuring speakers covering topics from pruning and grafting to genetic identification and historical fruit uses.
The conference and webinar are free and open to anyone who’s interested. For those who can’t make it to the live stream, each webinar is recorded for later viewing. Previous highlights you can currently find online are John Bunker, one of the best-known apple explorers around.
In December, watch out for a webinar with Dan Bussey—whose seven volume book set includes information on over 16,000 apple varieties from the United States and Canada. “We also have Boundary County local Casimir Holeski, of the Boundary County Orchard Restoration Project, giving a class on restorative pruning of old fruit trees scheduled for February 2021,” shares Nagy.
SOAC also plans to put an advisory committee together this fall to help direct efforts to areas of concern for local farmers and ranchers in North Idaho.
One of the key distinctions of the center is its beautiful infrastructure. The large conference building and dormitory makes it possible for the center to host interns, summer guests, 4-H groups and traveling campus classes. The center even opens its doors to local nonprofit organizations and educational events, although it is not available for private events.
“The other thing that sets us apart is our dedication to organic and sustainable agriculture research,” says Nagy. “Organic agriculture is a fast-growing segment of food production, and SOAC gives North Idaho residents and UI students the opportunity to learn about sustainable practices. We are very excited to host interns from UI that are interested in sustainable practices, including undergraduates pursuing the sustainable food systems major.”
In addition to its UI-Extension classes, educational outreach programs and conferences, SOAC typically offers orchard tours and a public apple tasting in normal years (public events like the tasting are limited for this year), although the facilities are not regularly open to the public. “Our hope is to develop courses taught directly through SOAC to area residents on subjects such as fruit tree maintenance and season extension,” shares Nagy.
While the facilities are not frequently open to the public, the orchard does offer u-pick raspberries late June through July, and bulk fruit sales to people looking to make sauce, cider and pies. The majority of the produce produced by the orchard is sold retail through local stores like Yokes and Winter Ridge, including cherries, apples and pears. They also press their own organic cider each year, which can be found in stores usually October through December.
Visit the SOAC website at UIdaho.edu/cals/sandpoint-organicagriculture- center to register for webinars or to find out more about the center. The best way to see what is currently being harvested is to visit their Facebook page @SandpointOrganicAgricultureCenter.