Ag leaders discuss saving farmland

Farmland on the bench above Emmett is slowly being converted to lots of more than an acre each for housing.

As one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, Idaho faces the challenge of how to keep up with its population growth yet also protect its farmers and farmland.

Idaho’s total farmland acreage is decreasing, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. In an attempt to organize efforts to combat the loss of farmland, the Idaho Environmental Forum hosted a panel discussion Dec. 3 with three local and regional agriculture experts on what the decrease in farmland acreage will mean for Idaho going forward and how to protect the existing acres.

Idaho isn’t alone in this challenge. Nationwide from 1982 to 2012, over 20 million acres of agricultural land were lost, said Amos Eno, president and founder of the Maine-based Land Conservation Assistance Network, during the forum at the Hoff Building in Boise.

Eno was one of three panelists at the forum. The others were Josie Erskine, district manager of Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Rep. Merrill Beyeler, R-Leadore.

The forum focused on two main suggestions for protecting Idaho’s farmland: agricultural conservation easements and strict comprehensive plans.

A recent study by Boise State University’s Jodi Brandt, professor of human environment systems, found that by 2100, the Treasure Valley alone is expected to lose 200,000 farmland acres.

Eno said conservation models in place today do not address the need to protect rural land and especially farmland.

“I think Idaho needs an agriculture and cattlemen’s land trust that serves on a statewide basis,” Eno said. “There are proven prototypes. Agriculture easements work; ranch easements work.”

An agricultural conservation easement is a deed agreement that landowners can place on their property to protect the land’s resources, such as agricultural capabilities, water and wildlife. Landowners can use an easement to give permission for a conservation organization, or in some cases, state government, to protect the land from development or other uses. Easements are often protected by land trusts.

“The thing about easements or anything that assists rural lands is that the solution has to be customized to the individual family, which government programs don’t do, and you can do that with easements,” Eno said.

Erskine also supported saving Idaho’s agricultural land through easements. She said, according to a poll from the Boise State study, the majority of Idahoans would support paying for statewide agricultural grants to protect land.

“One thing that the Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District has learned is that we have to take action today,” Erskine said. “The power for this change lies in the hands of our politicians. We have also learned that agricultural land is going to become one of the most precious natural resources for our future. Not only because it can grow food and fiber, but because the soil can sequester carbon.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, carbon sequestration is the process in which carbon dioxide is taken in by trees, grasses and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass and soils.

“The Treasure Valley is poised to be a community that understands the important function that all agricultural lands surrounding it has to the longevity of human life and our environmental function,” Erskine said.

Erskine estimated that protecting half of the Treasure Valley’s agricultural land would cost taxpayers statewide $12.5 million over 80 years.

Another cheaper option than a statewide land trust, she said, is local politicians setting and following their cities’ 100-year comprehensive plans strictly and to “say no” to development that is not allotted in the plans.

“Agricultural land is going to have to not be a holding place for development,” Erskine said.

NEW FARMERS

Another idea on how to save farmland is to recruit a younger generation of farmers to work the land conservationists aim to save.

The average age of farmers nationwide is 58, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Erskine said she often hears concerns about who will farm the land that is saved. She speaks to audiences across the Treasure Valley about how to save the area’s farmland. Erskine said she often gets asked the questions, “Where are all these farmers?” and, “Who are we saving the land for?”

She said Delaware has an aggressive state easement program and has created a young-farmers program, “and it is working.”

“Delaware has lowered their average age of farmers from the national average age by five years since 2011,” Erskine said.

During her presentation, Erskine showed a photo of her daughter working on their family farm.

“Farmers are not going to look like what they look like now,” she said. “They are going to change, they are going to be female, they are going to be people of color.”

She added, “It is going to be different, and what we farm is going to be different. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t save (farms).”

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.