Harvesting Memories: A Season of Adventure at Ronnigers Organics

Mar 4, 2024

On a brisk, muddy April afternoon, my girlfriend, Lily, and I arrived at a humble farm nestled between Moyie Springs, Idaho, and the Montana state line. Ronnigers Organics, established in 1986 by David Ronniger, has been a cornerstone of North Idaho for nearly four decades. The farm, now managed by David’s son, Simon, and Simon’s wife, Marqui, has always been unique. It is a destination brimming with joy, beautiful willows and interesting characters, not to mention some of the best produce in the Inland Northwest.

Mitchell Etheridge and Lily Basse at work on Ronnigers Organics farm near Moyie Springs. Courtesy photo.

Upon arrival, however, Lily and I knew very little about the farm. In fact, our knowledge about Idaho was virtually nonexistent. Our only frame of reference for the state was Napoleon Dynamite. We also knew that the Boise State football team had a blue turf field. That was it.

We discovered Ronnigers Organics through the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF), an online service that connects travelers, commonly referred to as WWOOFers, with organic farmers across the country and around the world. Farmers almost always need an extra pair of hands, and travelers like ourselves are eager to help in exchange for farm-fresh meals and a warm place to stay.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, Lily and I became increasingly disconnected from our academic and professional work. After spending three years staring at computer screens, we decided that enough was enough. We wanted to lead more fulfilling lives, so, upon graduating from the University of South Florida in Tampa, we saved up as much money as possible and hit the road.

After 45 hours of driving, Lily and I — along with our two cats, Swanson and Kai — were warmly welcomed to Boundary County. We settled into one of the handcrafted cabins amid the forest on the Ronniger property and started acclimating to a more peaceful way of life.

The quirks of rustic living certainly required adjustment, but we quickly embraced our backwoods bathroom, found joy in chopping wood, and rediscovered the long-forgotten power of VHS tapes and DVDs. We read a total of 35 books, hoofed a five-gallon water jug up two hills approximately 30 times and grew accustomed to walking 10 minutes for spotty Wi-Fi at the Curley Creek Community Hall.

We frequented Bonners Books, the Second Chance Animal Adoption Thrift Store and Under The Sun Bistro — the finest restaurant in town. I got some of the greatest haircuts I’ve ever had at Lou’s Shear Shack for $17.50 plus tip.

We started most days at dawn and ended them at dusk. We caught the tail end of a drawn-out winter and witnessed the season roll into spring. Our morning routine consisted of walking our cats, yes, on leashes; eating breakfast; drinking tea from the New Flower Herb Farm; and heading down to the garden for an honest day’s work. We spent most of our early days in the greenhouse, planting and caring for this year’s crop. Often, we were greeted by the barking of four sweet farm dogs: Kiwi, Beara, Luna and Rosie. If we were lucky, we would find a white cardboard box filled with day-old donuts from the world-renowned Moyie Store that Simon had picked up on his way to the farm.

For the first few months, Lily and I were the only WWOOFers around, so we spent most days learning from Simon and Marqui, but we could always count on biweekly appearances from Hoang, our farm “supervisor,” entertainer and good friend. We also looked forward to daily visits from Kevin, a jack-of-all-trades handyman who can fix almost anything, and Suzanne, Simon’s mother, an impressively devoted horse owner and the most enthusiastic grandmother around.

Ronnigers Organic Farm. Courtesy photo.

As the weather grew warmer, the transplanting began; and, before we knew it, the once-bare beds were teeming with life. We started seeing baby turkeys and fawns on our morning walks, and the days grew longer and longer. The strawberries blossomed, and so did the weeds; we entered a new phase of farm work.

Weeding was tedious. I savored the days I could mow the grass instead of pulling Canada thistle. No one loves weeding, but it had to be done. Luckily, we were joined by a handful of neighbor kids and a few new WWOOFers along the way. The strawberries peaked and began to wane, thus moving us into the summer.

June rolled into July; irrigation and fertilization became critical. The smell of rotten fish percolated throughout the garden — a result of organic fertilizer — and the moving of metal water pipes was a common chore. 

We’d often hear the sound of generators pumping water in the morning as we walked to work, past old bikes and cars with doors left open.

The raspberry bushes bloomed, the Sandpoint Farmers’ Market was a few weeks away, and Home Alone was on the TV non-stop, don’t ask me why. We were in the dog days of summer, and we started living like it. Between near-daily swims at the Yaak River and Perkins Lake with the Ronniger crew, visiting Kootenai Falls or hiking up Goat Mountain barefoot, Lily and I fell in love with this truly special place. We went to the Bleeding Hearts Tattoo Emporium and saw “Not Green Day” perform live at the Hive in Sandpoint on the same day; we were thoroughly impressed with both.

Once the Sandpoint Farmers’ Market began, our schedule shifted, and with it, our diet. We started harvesting summer vegetables and sometimes traded for other food items with different vendors at the market. We thoroughly enjoyed bartering our handpicked produce for cheese, bread, pastries, tea, honey and sunflower oil with some of the finest folks around.

At the end of most market days, the Ronniger crew, along with the Allicin’s Ranch gang, would grab a beer and a bite to eat at Matchwood Brewing Company. We sometimes took the party back to the farm, where we would engage in high-stakes kickball games. Ben Ronniger, Simon’s cousin and owner of Allicin’s Ranch, was the catalyst of competition. Ben and his wife, Claire, are good people with great garlic.

Post-market get-togethers led to some of our fondest memories. From witnessing the premiere of Barbie at Sandpoint Cinemas, to watching the Perseid meteor shower until 2 a.m., Saturday nights never disappointed. Nothing beats good company, cheap beer and warm weather.

Lily and I had originally planned on staying with the Ronnigers through August, then heading to a farm in Vermont in September, but ultimately decided to stay and see the season through; we are so glad that we did. We eventually forsook weeding and most watering efforts, and quickly pivoted to harvesting underneath a shady willow tree. We picked, cleaned and bundled thousands of carrots and beets, some of which were comically misshapen.

As late summer turned to early fall, we continued our outdoor adventures. We met Tracy, a Ronniger family friend and one of the most interesting old-school hippies around. He took us bushwhacking in search of an untouched waterfall off of Yaak River Road for his 80th birthday. We continued building relationships with our WWOOFing co-workers and enjoyed countless sunset dinners together. We visited the Ross Creek Cedars in the drizzling rain and took a weekend trip to Banff National Park, the most beautiful place on the planet.

Before we knew it, the fawns and baby turkeys from a few months back were nearly full grown. The cabbage, squash and potato harvest had started, each with their own unique requirements. Harvesting cabbage certainly had its drawbacks, but driving the tractor and tossing heads of cabbage at each other made it all worth it. The potato harvest was alluring, mostly due to the interesting characters it attracted, and the squash harvest was rewarding — as long as it wasn’t pouring down rain.

We closed out our last week at the farm with a bang. We saw Flipturn, a phenomenal band in which Lily’s brother is the lead singer, perform live at the Knitting Factory in Spokane; enjoyed one last post-market meal at Matchwood; and fought hard in our final farm kickball game.

The Ronnigers Organics vendor booth at Sandpoint Farmers’ Market. Courtesy photo.

Our experience at Ronnigers Organics was only as good as the company we kept — it was perfect. We were joined by 10 amazing WWOOFers throughout the season who accompanied Lily and me on most of our wildest adventures. We are so appreciative of Shiona, Isabella, Elina, Dan, Henning, Carly, Jasmine, Erika, John and Kitzy for sincerely enhancing our journey. We made lifelong connections with our traveling co-workers and formed eternal friendships with the coolest farmers on earth, Simon and Marqui, who are directly responsible for the best six months of our lives.

Simon and Marqui Ronniger are two of the most genuine, caring people around. We couldn’t have asked for better bosses. They are great parents to their two young boys and ideal role models for the next generation of farmers. They roll with the punches, complimenting each other in times of organized chaos. Whether it’s deer in the garden or a dead tractor battery, they always seem to make it work.

Simon once said, “People tend to live up to expectations when you believe in them.” This profoundly underscores why Ronnigers Organics is still successfully operating after 38 years. Between WWOOFers like us and the beautiful community of North Idaho, the Ronnigers know that leaning on decent people rarely disappoints.

Although Lily and I are headed back to Florida for the winter, we will never forget this place, these people and the memories we made here. We found deep appreciation for the natural world and for the farmers who keep it spinning. We will miss the barn cats, the horses, the dirt underneath our fingernails and, most importantly, the friendships, but we will be back soon — hopefully just in time for another year’s harvest.

To learn more about the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms, visit wwoof.net. For WWOOF USA, go to wwoofusa.org.

By Mitchell Etheridge
Reader Contributor

OCTOBER 25, 2023

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