BOISE — Josh Norris is a young farmer producing crop seeds and sugar beets in Caldwell. He said in the last eight years, he has watched two former crop fields transform into houses.
“For a new farmer to get access to land and to keep land, it is extremely difficult,” Norris said Tuesday in a webinar hosted by the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District.
The district hosted the webinar, “How do we save farmland?” over Zoom in response to a 2017 Boise State University study that estimates future farmland loss.
The Treasure Valley is projected to lose between 110,000 and 240,000 acres of farm and ranch land by 2100, said Jodi Brandt, an associate professor who worked on the study with other faculty members. The study incorporates Ada and Canyon counties, Payette and parts of Mountain Home.
“The decisions we make now over zoning and over how we grow and depending on how many people move here, it will impact how much agriculture land loss we will have by 2100,” Brandt said during the webinar.
According to the conservation district, from 2001 to 2016 the Treasure Valley lost more than 60,000 acres of farmland to developments. These were large-scale developments, and even developments built up between land zoned for agriculture use.
A group of farmers who presented during the webinar, including Norris, expressed a need to centralize growth in one area to avoid urban sprawl and the need to farm in urban areas.
“We cannot farm between the cracks, it is not possible,” said George Crookham, CEO of Crookham Company in Caldwell. “We need to preserve the land if citizens want to have farming as an industry in the valley.”
Crookham said some of the difficulties in farming between residential zones are people throwing trash away in areas used for farm irrigation, moving large farming equipment as small personal vehicles attempt to also travel on farm roads, and the fact that harvesting and planting often happens 24/7, meaning there maybe loud equipment and dust that disturbs residential areas.
“At my age, and just now getting into the industry, I have had conversations with my wife about if we want to continue farming, if it is sustainable to do it in this valley,” Norris said. “For me to continue farming, we have considered moving out of the valley to continue this business. That is not our first choice, that is our last option.”
Norris said he would even like his two sons to have the opportunity to farm on his land if they choose to, but he said, “I don’t know if that will be an option for them in this valley.”
SOLUTIONSJennifer Riebe, a Payette County Planning and Zoning commissioner, has researched ways cities and counties across the U.S. have addressed the nationwide need to protect farmland and deal with growth.
Riebe said some ways of protecting farmland are to implement urban growth boundaries in cities and counties. This means a local jurisdiction can set a regional boundary for urban development and ensure that the areas outside of the boundary are preserved for agriculture or conservation.
Riebe also suggested utilizing a program called Transfer of Development Rights, where a landowner can voluntarily sell the development rights from their land to a developer who can use the rights to increase the density on a property the developer owns, ideally away from agriculture land and toward the urban growth boundary.
Another presenter, Eric Grace with the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, explained agricultural conservation easements, another tactic farmers can use to protect their land from future development.
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 purpose of conservation easements is to protect natural values of the land fall under categories like farm and ranch land preservation, wildlife habitat and historic preservation,” Grace said.
Josie Erskine, district manager of Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the district has been working to “crack the code for agriculture preservation for years.” The district has had a number of public presentations on easements and development transfers to help educate the community on the importance of saving the valley’s farmland and how to do it.
“We need to identify political leaders who are not afraid to take this issue on,” Erskine said, adding that the district has had some legislators express interest in the agriculture land protections, but are often swayed by the power developers have in the state.
Dave Reynolds, a farmer in Kuna, said the decision to preserve farmland in the valley “is not an easy decision, but as we go forward we see that it is important that we are able to feed ourselves. It is one industry of ours that is one of the best in the world, and it is important to preserve that.”