Idaho farmland is being gobbled up by the minute to house the swelling population in America’s No. 1 fastest-growing state.
While some rural areas, such as Lemhi County, have programs in place like the Lemhi Trust to preserve farmland, the Treasure Valley does not.
“Where’s the leadership?” said Patricia Nilsson, a panelist at the fifth annual Nampa Ag Forum Feb. 6 at the Ford Idaho Center. The event was attended by more than 350 people. Nilsson is Canyon County development services director.
“I’m not sure who my leader is,” she said.
Funding is another variable each community needs to figure out. Nilsson recalls a Pennsylvania county she once lived in passed two $50 million bonds to fund conservation efforts.
A Boise State University report predicts as much as 240,000 acres of Treasure Valley farmland could be lost by 2100 as Boise, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell and the small cities merge into a single populated mass.
Boise State has determined that as many as 80 percent of Treasure Valley residents are at least mildly concerned if not strongly concerned about the loss of farmland in the immediate Boise metro area, said Jodi Brandt, a Boise State environmental sciences associate professor.
“You never hear anyone say ‘Yes, I want this valley filled up with people,’” said Brandt, a speaker at the forum.
Brandt was co-author of Boise State’s October 2017 “Projecting Urban Expansion in the Treasure Valley to 2100.” The report found that the urban land area in the Treasure Valley increased by 10 percent from 2001 to 2011, while farmland decreased by 5 percent.
Farmland is often protected with conservation easements, a voluntary binding agreement to prevent development. This involves finding willing ranch and farm owners and finding the money to buy these easements if they are not donated, panelists said.
The Lemhi Regional Land Trust in Salmon used conservation easements to protect 13 farms and ranches totally 14,000 acres, all within designated salmon mitigation areas near the Lemhi River. Seven were purchases for $14 million. Another six were donated, said Kristin Troy, the trust’s founding executive director.
Properties range from 5,000 acres to 13 acres on the banks of the Lemhi River. Troy added the appraised value of the protected land is $26 million.
“One ranch has 4 miles of Lemhi River frontage,” Troy said. “This is a voluntary program.”
Lemhi County ranchers and farms embrace Troy’s campaign, which she launched in 2005.
“The demand for our services always exceeds our resources,” Troy said.
The trust tapped mitigation funding from the Bonneville Power Administration for nearly all the purchase costs for conservations easements, she said.
Troy stressed at the forum that one size does not fit all in preserving agricultural land. Every region must find its own ways to convince property owners and fund easement purchases. First off, a leader is needed, she said. That’s the role assumed by Troy, a lifelong resident of the county who owns the company Idaho Adventures.
Pick the right fight to conserve farmland
The Lemhi trust team acknowledged that not all farmland can be preserved.
“You have to be strategic,” said panelist Merrill Beyeler, chairman of the Lemhi Regional Land Trust. “There are certain ag lands we cannot live without. Identify the lands we absolutely need to have for agriculture.”
Ranches and farms are sold for two principal reasons: retirement, and market conditions that mean owners can make more money selling their acreage than farming or ranching it.
A conservation easement is an exit strategy.
“When you talk about an exit strategy, you better talk about an entrance strategy,” Beyeler said. “How is a new owner going to enter the field? The biggest problem is the price of land. Those prices almost make it impossible. You can reduce the cost of entry and still compensate the owner.”
Colorado offers a conservation easement tax credit. Oregon in 2017 launched an Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program.
State Sen. Todd Lakey, a Nampa Republican, prefers local solutions rather than state dictates.
“It’s best if ag folks are making money,’ Lakey said.
Lakey and Ashton Shaul, a Future Farmers of America competition winner and Meridian High School senior, lean toward biotech, which they said is a more efficient use of less farmland.
“Urbanization does not have to be the death of the ag industry,” Shaul said as a forum speaker. “Biotech is not our enemy. Biotech will allow more food on less land.”
New Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling launched the Nampa Ag Forums five years ago while CEO of the Nampa Chamber of Commerce, which still organizes the forum. Kling’s grew up on a Kansas farm.
“There will always be a need for food,” Kling said. “The ag industry carried us through the Recession. If you don’t have a plan to address the loss of ag land, we won’t have the industry.”