BLACKFOOT – When Blackfoot farm boy Alan Shoemaker was in high school, he dreamed of being a farmer, but not the kind his father and grandfather were — raising things like potatoes, hay and grain, but a farmer who raised fruits and vegetables.
In other words, he wanted to own a truck garden.
He’s been living that dream for 38 years, and while truck gardens have come and gone in Bingham County as time passed, Shoemaker’s Farm out on Porterville Road northeast of Groveland has been producing steadily despite the ups and downs of the economy and life in general.
One of the biggest downs as far as the business is concerned probably is that the number of people who do home canning appears to be dropping, Alan said, and that fact alone has changed the way his garden grows. But the very biggest, as any farmer big or small knows, is the high cost of production, which far outpaces profits.
For crops that start from plants already growing, he sends the seed to a greenhouse in Downey, but says the price of everything necessary to raising a crop just keeps on growing along with the crops. “Getting the seed started used to cost me $4,000 and now it’s $11,000,” he said. “It used to cost $85 an acre to grow sweet corn, and now it costs $400 an acre. They used to sell seed by the pound. Now they sell it by the thousand count.”
Financial worries aside, it’s clear that high production costs and diminishing profits don’t diminish the satisfaction Alan gets from watching the land he tills produce its crops. “If I clear $5,000 at the end of the year these days, I figure I’m still doing okay,” he observed.
It was his father who turned him aside from his dream, Alan said. “He told me there wasn’t any money to be made in farming, so I went off to college,” where he spent seven years, and might have found a career in the military were it not for a childhood illness.
He was in his junior year at the University of Idaho and had been a member of Army ROTC for two years. Whether he might have gone on to become regular Army he’ll never know, because his medical checkup revealed a serious childhood ear infection had left him with a permanently perforated eardrum. He was pronounced 4-F.
“They told my mother it would heal itself, but I guess it never did,” he said, “so a perforated eardrum may have changed my life.”
Because of his farm background he was majoring in agronomy, but with ROTC a thing of the past he began exploring other avenues. In his senior year he found he not only liked psychology, he was good at it, so he went on to earn his master’s degree in counseling.
He met his late wife, Lillian, while working as a counselor at Good Will Industries in Portland, Ore., where he remained for six years before they moved back to Blackfoot for a job as counselor at Dawn Enterprises, then to Omaha, Neb., for a similar position.
They were still there several years later when Alan’s uncle died and he learned he’d been left the farm his grandfather started in 1919 after leaving Bannock County when he got crowded out by urbanization. Realizing his dream was within his grasp, he brought his family home.
Lillian, a city girl born and bred, wasn’t too sure about the idea once the move was made, he said. “She grew up in the city where there were lights and traffic 24 hours a day. It was dark and quiet here, and it made her uneasy.”
But they took up residence in the house his grandfather built in 1928, Lillian eventually adjusted to life in the country and they reared their three daughters there.
Shoemaker Farms had a modest beginning — only four acres planted to cabbage, corn, potatoes and carrots. “Our total earnings the first year amounted to $173 but we figured it would take at least five years to become a success.”
Luckily, having someone else grow the food they canned had appeal for many local housewives, Alan said, and each year they expanded by five acres until reaching the farm’s current size of 22.
And now Shoemakers produces every garden crop that will grow in this climate, including white corn, which he initially thought might have been a mistake. “The first time I grew white corn I couldn’t give it away,” Alan said. “I’d ask people ‘why don’t you try a few ears of this?’ but they’d look at it and say ‘Nope, it’s not ripe yet.”
Now it’s one of his best sellers, particularly with the Latino people, who find it less “gummy” than yellow corn. They’re also his best customers for the eight varieties of peppers they favor, with cayenne alone taking up almost a full acre.
What Shoemaker can’t or doesn’t grow they import, like avocados, plums, garlic, sweet onions, pinto beans, and much more.
A drop in the number of people who do canning has affected his income, Alan said. He used to import 100 cases of peaches a week in season, and now it’s just three cases. “But they bring more money by the pound, and that helps.”
And green beans, pickling cucumbers and table beets are still good sellers for canning, he said, although he sells more cucumbers for slicing. But they’re not available yet. “The wet spring put us about three weeks behind on planting but they’ll be ready in another 10 days. But customers shouldn’t expect produce to be ready at the time it normally is,” he added.
Much of the produce from Shoemaker Farms makes its way to the Farmers Market in Idaho Falls, which is good for business. “We sell more there in an hour than we do in a week here.”
Following Lillian’s untimely death in 1993, Alan continued to run the farm and raised his daughters alone, instilling in them his love of the land and growing things, but they eventually left for college and careers in the medical field.
Now he carries on with the help of a few permanent workers like Jesus Ramirez, his field supervisor, and what temporary help he can find, which isn’t easy, especially when it comes to hoeing and pulling weeds. “Kids used to come out just to make a little pocket money, but not anymore. And to other people, I guess it’s just too much work.”
Alan can be found most days seated behind the cash register in the little produce store at Shoemaker Farms, and no matter how many growing seasons come and go, he will never lose his love for growing food or the satisfaction he gets from putting seed in the ground and watching over it until it’s ready to be someone’s dinner.