Christina Stucker-Gassi is concerned by how quickly Meridian is losing its farmland.
“I'm old enough that I remember when you went behind McMillan and there was nothing but farmland, and now it's all subdivisions from there to 20/26,” she said. “And it's also kind of sad because I'm not very old — like, I'm 22. So it's been really fast."
Boise couple George Meintel and Cynthia Wallesz feel the same way.
“We've only been here a few years, but you see ag land disappearing so quickly, and it's shocking,” Wallesz said.
This concern motivated all three of them to attend a “Why Save Farmland?” presentation sponsored by the Treasure Valley Food Coalition last month. The educational series, which will continue this spring, is based on the question: What is the future we want for the Treasure Valley's farmland?
From 1969 to 2012, Ada and Canyon counties combined lost about 30 percent of their farmland acreage. The state during that same period lost about 18 percent, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Since 2007, however, Canyon County has seen a rebound in farmland acreage, partly because farmers converted land into irrigated crops.
The Treasure Valley continues to be a popular place for residential growth, and in 2013 Meridian was the 10th fastest-growing city in the country. In the next 25 years, Ada County is projected to gain more than 100,000 new households, a 65 percent increase, while Canyon County is projected to gain almost 58,000 new households, an 83 percent increase, based on estimates from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. This projected growth clearly poses a challenge for those interested in preserving the region's agricultural land and character.
“We have a long history of losing our farms to urban development, and it's continuing today all across the eastern United States, and now we see it in cities and towns out in the great West,” said Mike McGrath, the series' featured speaker, at Boise State University and The College of Idaho on Oct. 10-11. McGrath worked in the Delaware Department of Agriculture for 28 years, where he helped develop a nationally recognized farmland preservation program.
The program preserved 25 percent of Delaware's farmland through the use of agricultural easements: a voluntary deed agreement in which farmers sell development rights based on a per-acre fair market price. The farmer still owns the land, but the government buys the right to preserve it as farmland, McGrath said. That deed restriction remains in force for any future owner.
Across Idaho, about 20 groups are working on land conservation easements funded with private and federal dollars. There are only two publicly funded easement programs, according to Julia Grant, the secretary for the Idaho Coalition of Land Trusts, a group that coordinates land conservation efforts statewide. The publicly funded programs include Blaine County's Land, Water and Wildlife Program and one in the city of Boise currently working on open space and clean water.
“The public in those areas have decided to tax themselves because those (preservation) values are so important in their community,” Grant said.
A statewide program to fund preservation in Idaho is still in its infancy, she said.
Stucker-Gassi said she wants Idaho farmers to have more options when they retire.
"I have family that lost their farm to development on Locust Grove," she said. "I know that they got bought out because it was their retirement, and I want to find a viable way to keep that farmland productive for the next generation that wants to farm, and for people to do that without giving up what they've spent their whole lives waiting for."
NAME OF THE GAME
Retired Kuna farmer Don Johnson, 79, said he didn't see a lot of financial options other than selling his acreage to a developer. Now, homes are being built on the property that his family farmed for more than five decades. Johnson said that makes him a little sad, but he's also glad to provide ground for people to live on now that he's no longer farming.
“When you get that age you can't do some of the things that you used to do," he said. "And we have three sons, but none of them wanted to come back and take over the operation.”
For an ag easement program to work in Idaho, Johnson said the state would need to find a funding source and would need to pay farmers a competitive rate offered by developers.
“When you're looking for a retirement," he said, "that's the name of the game."
Land that's prime for housing development, complete with access to sewer and water, is selling for $60,000 to $80,000 an acre in Ada County and $15,000 to $35,000 an acre in Canyon County, Colliers International land broker John Starr said.
The Meridian sugar beet field on the northwest corner of Fairview Avenue and Eagle Road — the busiest intersection in the state — could probably go for $218,000 an acre, he said.
Retired farmer Gary Drake agreed to sell his Kuna property about nine years ago when approached by a developer. He doesn't regret it one bit.
“A guy knocked on the door and offered me more money than I wanted, than I could ever make if I farmed it until I was 300 years old," Drake said. "So I just said, you got it, just one easy payment.”
If he hadn't sold the property, Drake said he probably would have continued to live there and rent out the acreage.
For Peggy Paul, keeping her family's land in agriculture is more important than the money she could get by selling it to a developer, she said. She and her husband, Jim, have 80 acres of farmland and more than 300 chestnut trees in Canyon County, near McDermott Road and Cherry Lane.
Paul, 64, said she loves the open space and being able to see the sun rise and set on the horizon. It's also important for local residents to be able to see where their food comes from, she said.
"Money's not everything. Quality of life is more important in a lot of ways than money," she said. “It's just a lifestyle that I'd like to see our generation give on to, pass on to our grandchildren."
The future of the Pauls' land is uncertain, however, because the state plans to eventually build the State Highway 16 connection through their property.
LOCALS VALUE FARMLAND
Public opinion polls show that Treasure Valley residents value the preservation of farmland, according to feedback given to the city of Meridian, Ada County and Boise State University researchers.
A recent BSU School of Public Service poll found Treasure Valley and Owhyee County residents are greatly concerned with the loss of farmland and decline of family farms.
When respondents were asked which should be a priority, affordable housing or preserving farmland, 57 percent overall favored preserving farmland. In Canyon County that number was nearly 70 percent for preserving farmland, compared with Ada County's 53 percent.
Stucker-Gassi said her main interest in farmland preservation is the access to local food, which she calls the fabric of a healthy community.
"I'm worried about urban sprawl," she said. "I know that it's because Idaho's such a great place to live, and the cost of living is low. But at the same time, I feel like we're losing something that we can't get back."
RALLYING TO SAVE FARMLAND
It's not just the Treasure Valley Food Coalition addressing this issue. Ada County approved a 2025 comprehensive plan this month that includes open space and ag preservation as a top priority. The added emphasis is in response to community members saying they valued farmland and open space and the quality of life that adds to the Treasure Valley, said Megan Basham, Ada County community and regional planner.
According to Ada County's comprehensive plan, 8 percent of the county's land was used for crop cultivation in 2014, down from 14 percent in 2000.
Canyon County also beefed up farmland protection in the 2020 comprehensive plan it passed six years ago with a provision to protect agricultural land from incompatible development, with the goal of protecting "food and fiber as well as the economic benefits they provide the community.”
The county's plan also includes a policy recommendation that the county should identify areas suitable for development and farmland, and that development should occur close to existing infrastructure rather than near farmland.
Not everyone agrees that the comprehensive plan has had the effect of protecting and preserving farmland.
In 2013, an advocacy group seeking to protect farmland, the Coalition for Agriculture's Future, sued Canyon County, alleging that it violated the comprehensive plan with zoning decisions that did not protect agriculture land from development. While the lawsuit was later dismissed by Idaho Supreme Court in March 2016, due to a lack of standing, a summary statement prepared by the court said that the suit raised concerns over how the county handled its comprehensive plan.
More recently, Patricia Nilsson, development services director at Canyon County, told the Press-Tribune she is considering forming a committee to gather feedback on developing a more restrictive agriculture zone in Canyon County.
Agricultural zoning now allows for development such as churches and gravel pits, she said. A more restrictive ag zone could ensure that a plot of land designated for agriculture remains a farm field, she said.
On the city level, Meridian added an agricultural zoning option four years ago in response to feedback from south Meridian farmers.
Meridian is growing according to plan, which discourages urban sprawl and promotes continuous growth from the inside out, Meridian Community Development Director Bruce Chatterton said. The city is about halfway to its projected build-out of roughly 66 square miles.
Chatterton acknowledges that growth — and the noise, traffic and loss of farmland that come with it — can be tough on residents.
Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise is a perfect example. The owners of the Boise farm are looking to move to Canyon County because a large mixed-use development is planned nearby.
The Dry Creek Ranch development is slated to have 1,750 homes and 80,000 square feet of commercial space on 1,500 acres of what is currently prime farmland, the Capital Press reports. The development, approved in 2010, is now moving through the public hearing and approval process.
Peaceful Belly Farm owner Josie Erskine said she'd rather move the farm than be up against homes and deal with the related pressure and traffic, according to the Nov. 2 story.
THE AGRICULTURE ECONOMY
Local efforts to save the area's agricultural heritage aren't just about land use. Meridian has worked with consultants to identify opportunities to grow agriculture jobs related to higher education, tourism and technology.
This fall, Meridian launched the “Growing Together” initiative with Nampa, Ada and Canyon counties, farmers, universities and other industry stakeholders to brainstorm possibilities in the local ag economy.
With a history of agriculture, the Treasure Valley is in a good position to develop agricultural technology and food processing sectors, McGrath told an audience at The College of Idaho last month.
“You’re a big farming area, so you have the context of agriculture, and the agriculture software and hardware business is just exploding. Ask any farmer that’s a row crop farmer, they’ve got GPS on their combines," he said.
These kinds of projects, he added, could gain momentum with all of the tech-types from Silicon Valley who are moving to Idaho.
When Delaware began preserving its farmland, McGrath said a handful of food-processing companies relocated there. He said the companies told him, “Because you’ve preserved enough farmland, we know that our business will be permanent.”
“If you’re losing farmland all of the time, and there doesn’t seem to be a future for farming, you’re not going to attract those other industries to support agriculture,” McGrath said. “On the other hand, as you preserve land, those other ancillary industries see opportunities because of the land base they need to operate their business.”
Agribusiness, made up of crop farming, livestock farming and agricultural processing, is Idaho's third-largest export-driven industry based on the sale of goods and services, according to a report by University of Idaho economists. Farm cash receipts hit a record $8.8 billion in 2014, but decreased to $7.5 billion in 2015.
Last year, Idaho was estimated to be the third-largest agricultural state in the West, behind California and Washington, according to the report. Idaho ranks first nationwide in potato production and third in the nation in milk production.
In 2013, Idaho's 58,400 agribusiness jobs made up 6.4 percent of the state total, according to U of I economists. When considering its ripple effect on other industries, agribusiness supported 126,000 jobs, or 14 percent of the state total that year.
Local leaders say they can't tackle the issue of farmland preservation alone. It's going to take regional collaboration across the public and private sphere, Chatterton said.
That collaboration, he added, includes you, the resident.
"Come to the outreach meetings. Get involved, not just with the project that is coming in near you, but get involved," he said. "Attend some planning and zoning commission meetings, city council meetings. We love to have this dialogue.”
The Treasure Valley Food Coalition plans to bring more speakers to the Boise area in 2017 as part of its "Why Save Farmland?" series.