I have been working in food and farming since 2008, when we had the “luxury” of a housing downturn that eased the development pressure on farmland. Unfortunately for farmers, development accelerated as the economy recovered. A new report shows between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland were lost or compromised by development across this nation. In Idaho, 70,000 acres were lost or fragmented—in places like the Treasure Valley, the Magic Valley, and Rathdrum Prairie — 80% of which was Idaho’s best land.
These statistics really hit home at a recent meeting hosted by the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District, where local farmers spoke to the way farmland loss threatens their livelihoods.
Summing up what was said — if we want farming to continue in the Treasure Valley, we need to do something about it. The economics of farming is tough enough, but when you add the pressures of development — rising land prices and loss of leased land – it’s difficult to continue. One farmer said that developers own a quarter of the land he farms; he can’t plan ahead, he can only hang on year to year.
The increased traffic on the roads makes it harder to farm as well. Moving equipment from one field to another is complicated and dangerous. As one farmer put it, “We can’t farm between the cracks.”
Farmers’ stories are our stories. Only recently have Americans realized that our food system is fragile. Covid-19 – and the empty store shelves it brought — has shown us how unprepared we were for the shock of a global pandemic. By protecting farmland, we can invest in the resiliency of our communities, and buffer our food system from future disruptions.
Idaho’s population will grow, but there are ways to manage it that allow for agriculture. Planning policies can prevent sprawl by directing housing development to targeted growth areas, focusing on compact growth and urban boundaries. Houses dotted along rural roads may seem romantic for folks looking to escape the city, but this type of growth is 122 times more likely to be further developed.
The best way to permanently protect farmland is with voluntary conservation easements. Easements give farmers a pay-out which can be used for business expansion or operational shifts. The cash infusion can often enable senior farmers to retire and pass along the business to the next generation.
We also need to support farm viability by investing in market infrastructure for the agricultural industry (24,000 active farms and ranches, contributing over $7 billion to Idaho’s economy annually). We need infrastructure that supports farms of all sizes, from farmers markets and food hubs, to cold storage and processing plants, to a robust transportation system. One of the best ways to protect farmland is to keep it in production, and market infrastructure is a key piece of that puzzle.
Most of all, we need to help non-farmers understand the importance of agriculture. We have organizations that can protect farmland; we have policies and tools that work. But securing a future for farming will require more than expertise, it will require political will. We need the collaboration of local governments, and we need citizen engagement to protect the health of this state, its people, and the environment we all treasure.