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CALDWELL — Backyard gardeners and small-acre farmers gathered Friday at College of Idaho for workshops on topics including how to raise Angora rabbits, how to start a vineyard, the benefits of composting and how to maintain habitats for native bees. 

Ada Soil and Water Conservation District and the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides partnered for the second year to host Harvest and Hearth, a two-day series of farm workshops that aim to promote organic and sustainable farming in Idaho.

The workshop started Friday with a keynote speech from David Johnson, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and professor and researcher at California State University, Chico, and New Mexico State University, about his research into soil health and how to improve it through soil microorganisms.

Johnson said agriculture may look healthy from the outside, but through his in-depth research, he has found farmers are struggling with both soil and crop health.

"We need to produce high quality food and more nutrient-dense food, we need to do this on a declining land area, using less water, fewer energy and natural resources, do all this under difficult economic circumstances, on soils and ecosystems that continue to be degraded and in a system that is getting more unstable," he said, adding, "We got this."

Johnson said the last 70 years of conventional farming have created these challenges, but he said through his years of research into soil microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and algae, he has come up with "a path forward."

Johnson uses a process called the Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management system, that composts dairy manure and regenerates soil, producing more and better quality crops. Johnson presented several examples of farmers who were attempting to tame desert-type soils with little nutrients and after a few years of using the Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management system, their soils have improved and are producing better crops.

"We can rebuild our degrading soils and increase soil fertility, we can produce more nutrient-dense food, we can use less water because plant water use efficiency goes up and soil water retention goes up," Johnson said. "We can use nature to fix the elements, we can reduce pollution and atmospheric carbon dioxide and we can improve productivity and profitability, most importantly."

Johnson also hosted a workshop where he talked more about his composting techniques and answered audience questions.

Jo Anne Smith, the owner and a grower at Smith Berry Farms in Payette, sat in the audience during Johnson's speech and said she was impressed. 

"He is on the cutting edge of a new understanding of the relation between microbiology and plants," she said.

Compost was just one workshop in the Harvest and Hearth aimed at helping farmers improve their crop health. Another workshop taught farmers about the benefits that native pollinators to their farms.

Karen Strickler, Ph.D., a professor at College of Western Idaho in Nampa and the owner of Pollinator Paradise, a home-based company dedicated to the management of native bees, gave her workshop attendees several tips on how to attract more bees to their gardens, orchards or farms. 

She suggested that to attract orchard bees, a farmer should have around 2,000 blooming flowers in their orchard for each bee the farmer wants to nest in the area. She said orchard farmers should plant their trees or flowers close together because native bees don't like to travel very far. She said people should have at least 10 different species of plants in an area because bees are attracted to large meadows where there are unmanicured patches of flowers. 

Alayne Blickle sat in on Strickler's native bee workshop and said it was the most widely attended workshop she had been in that day. 

"The bees are cute," Blickle said as Strickler passed around displays of bees. "People are very interested in native pollinators and how to attract them."

Blickle is an educator with Horses for Clean Water, a program to help horse owners manage their land. This was her second year attending the Harvest and Hearth workshop and she said this year's workshop was even better than the workshop last year. 

Harvest and Hearth is also hosting a few events 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Vine and Branch. 

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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