Letters From the West

Couple offers sustainable future for Challis

Praying for rain in the arid West comes as natural as expecting to see color in the next pan of placer sand.

It takes hope and faith to survive long winters, sweltering summer heat and the uncertainty of weather and markets in communities far from urban dynamism. The history of the West has historically been boom and bust.

Communities have grown and disappeared based on the discovery of minerals and on the price of lumber, beef, sheep and hay. Stability has been as rare as sustainability in rural communities where the source of vitality has been the mine or the saw mill.

Since the 1980s, Challis has thrived with the opening of the Thompson Creek molybdenum mine. For 30 years the ore pulled from the open pit up a tributary of the Salmon River has pumped wealth, employment and mostly stability into northern Custer County.

Today, the mine has stopped production, laying off 100 workers. Its future remains uncertain.

So does Challis.’ But one family’s vision, a rainmaker if you will, offers a new path.

Imagine a cooperative food processing center that allows the ranching families of Custer and Lemhi counties the option to sell their beef locally, butchered, packed and marketed by local workers.

But don’t stop at beef. Add a geothermal fish farm that already has 47,000 tilapia and a 20,000 square foot greenhouse for raising fresh vegetables to serve the surrounding cities, and you have a blessing many rural communities can only pray to see.

Christopher and Debbie James are building on the success of their conference and retreat center, Living Waters Ranch, in Challis and their deep Christian faith to develop a business that produces good tasting and healthy food and jobs for the community.

“Because we have been blessed personally, it’s our job to reach out to the community,” Christopher James said.

James is the son of Robert James, who founded Raymond James Financial, today a $5-6 billion investment company. He came to Challis in the 1980s to check out a mining claim he owned and decided to move there.

The James started Living Waters Ranch in 1997 as a place for both Christian and secular retreats for up to 350 people. Debbie took the lead in developing the Tea Cup Cafe and Bakery in downtown Challis, where you can get tea served on china in the Earl Grey tea room, big breakfasts, prime rib dinners and home baked pies, truffles, cheesecake and cinnamon rolls.

“There haven’t been any nice new restaurants since I came here 21 years ago,” Debbie said.

Debbie and Christopher James in their Tea Cup Cafe in downtown Challis.

Debbie and Christopher James in their Tea Cup Cafe in downtown Challis.

They already had purchased several large ranches, which raise a part of the total of 28,000 head of cattle that graze in Custer County and 37,000 head in Lemhi. They and their partners Jeri and Lisa D’Orazio, hope to get the USDA food processing center and the cooperatives going in the next two years.

The geothermal fish farming operation also includes two hydroelectric plants. James plans to take the waste water from the fish farm and use it as fertilizer in an integrated aquaponic agriculture business.

“It adds another dimension, sustainability, which is very important,” James said.

The James know they can’t do it alone. That’s they are setting up a cooperative that allows the community to join in like the Salmon River Electrical Cooperative or a credit union.

“It’s not going to be mine, its going to be ours,” James said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West