Idaho growers turn rock piles into farm land

Published online: Jan 08, 2014
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BLACKFOOT, Idaho-When the recession started and commercial excavation jobs began to dry up, Anderson Construction fell back on a niche service it offers farmers looking to maximize their arable land.

Eastern Idaho growers often plant around lava-rock outcroppings scattered throughout their pivots.

Given the steady increase in land values and strong commodity prices in recent years, some regional growers have acquired heavy equipment to cover rock patches with dirt and put them into production. Others simply hire an expert, like Jeff Anderson, to turn their problem areas into farm ground.

Anderson charges $1,000-$3,000 per acre, covering about 50 acres each year within a 30-mile radius of Blackfoot. Most of the work is done after the fall grain harvest.

"The farm work is probably 70-80 percent of our income," Anderson said. "Since farm prices have been so good, we've really stayed busy. It kept us in business."

Anderson covers each rock pile with a 2-foot dirt layer, tapering the edges for a smooth transition. In most cases, growers ask him to take the dirt from corners of their fields missed by pivots to spread over rock patches within their pivots. He can also skim soil off low-lying usable farm land.

Growers reason they're already incurring the expense of irrigating-and in some cases fertilizing or applying chemicals through pivots-on rock piles that support only weeds.

Blackfoot farmer Allen Young has utilized Anderson's services each year for the past decade, having him work on parts of all 2,500 acres of his farm throughout the years. Young estimates he recoups his investment within 10 years.

"It costs us about $3,000 per acre to cover ground," Young said. "If you could buy farm land and water was free and fertilizer was free forever for $3,000, would you do it?"

Anderson often digs deep into alkali soils to get a sufficient supply of dirt. To make the new soil productive, Young applies about 500 pounds each of phosphate and sulfur. Other growers have incorporated manure or mulched stubble to build up organic matter. Anderson advises heavy watering of newly covered rock piles to wash alkali from soil and prevent equipment from scraping it off.

Within five years, Young's covered rock piles get comparable yields to the rest of his acreage.

"You're seeing more of it done now," Young said of covering rocks. "The farmers have a little more cash and can improve their farms."

Blackfoot farmer Randy Polatis and Hamer, Idaho, grower Richard Larsen own excavation equipment. Polatis estimates it took twice as long to plow some fields before he covered rock piles that posed obstacles. Because grain tends to grow a bit shorter on his covered rocks, he increases his seeding rate by roughly 30 percent to produce more heads.

Larsen has covered his farm's rock piles since the early 1970s. Whenever possible, he saves the dirt that falls from spuds being loaded into storage.

"Anybody that has got (rock piles) needs to cover them," Larsen said.