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BOISE — A group of small- and medium-scale farmers in southwestern Idaho is part of a fledgling project that seeks to grow heirloom corn seed for the local tortilla market.
The project, funded in part by a USDA grant, has so far conducted field trials of 24 heirloom corn cultivars. Heirloom corn, sometimes called “ancient grains,” are niche varieties that have been grown for generations or even hundreds of years.
A chef from Diablo & Sons, a Boise restaurant opening in April, has selected the most promising varieties from the trial and about 10 farmers will grow that seed out this year.
The heirloom varieties “were bred for their taste. People love these varieties because they taste good,” said Casey O’Leary, who conducted the trial on her Boise farm and is overseeing the project.
The corn will be used to make masa, a traditional type of dough used to make tortillas and other Mexican foods such as tamales.
Diablo owner Dave Krick, who also owns two other local restaurants, said he wants to buy as much of his masa as possible from local farmers.
The heirloom corn project will help make that possible, he said.
“We grow a lot of corn for ethanol here, and feed corn and sweet corn, but not specifically corn that was designed for masa,” he said.
The trial tested heirloom corn varieties to see which ones grow well in southern Idaho.
Besides helping a lot of small farmers in the region diversify their operations, the project could lead to other value-added opportunities, such as a producer making and packaging their own tortillas or a new tortilla company, Krick said.
“I think there would be high demand for it,” he said.
Nampa, Idaho, farmer Janie Burns is one of the people who plans to grow out some of the heirloom corn seed this year.
“It’s never going to suck up the entire corn production of our area but it’s going to diversify the farm base, which will be very healthy,” she said. “There will also be an enormous potential for a buyer to say he is going to be offering this unique corn that will set him apart in the marketplace.”
Although the only guaranteed customer at the moment for the heirloom corn is Krick, O’Leary believes the project offers local farmers tremendous opportunity.
“I think there are a lot of other markets for that stuff as well,” she said. “In two years, there will be more (corn) than we will know what to do with.”
During a recent organic conference where the project was discussed, Kenny Meyer, a food purchaser from Whole Foods Market, a grocery chain, was intrigued by the project.
“Ancient corns are really emerging. It would be amazing if Idaho became known for that,” he said.