‘My Right to Farm’: Leaders discuss protecting agriculture in a context of rapid development | Harvests

CALDWELL – Agriculture is important in Canyon County – but how important? And how should the government best support farmland protection while refraining from telling landowners what to do?

To answer these questions, David Anderson, the Idaho program manager for the American Farmland Trust and a fifth-generation Idahoan from a ranching family, presented his research on the importance of agriculture in the region. at the Canyon County Board of Commissioners on May 31. with many county planning staff in attendance.

These are just some of the questions county planners and elected officials are wrestling with as they craft Canyon County’s new Comprehensive Plan, the document that will guide development and regulate development there for residents. next 10 years. The process to develop the document, which began in 2019, is still ongoing, with public hearings on the most recent version expected to be scheduled for late June or possibly early July, as previously reported.

The American Farmland Trust felt it necessary to describe the importance of agriculture to Canyon County’s economy, as the rate of conversion of farmland to developed land in Treasure Valley is “among the highest in the nation.” , said Anderson.

Still, agriculture is a “significant driver” of Canyon County’s economy, Anderson said. The current value of Canyon County’s agricultural economy is just under $620 million, he said. In 20 years, if no cropland was converted, that value would exceed $1 billion, he said. He wanted to create an optimal estimate of how much farmland could be lost if the county adopted its current comprehensive plan and explain what that would do to the value of the farm economy.

To do this, he used data from the US Department of Agriculture to pinpoint where the 12 most valuable crops are grown in the county, he said. In order, these crops are alfalfa, winter wheat, corn, mint, sugar beets, dried beans, onions, potatoes, hops, orchards; spring wheat, other grains and pulses; and vegetables, Anderson said.

The US Department of Agriculture does not distinguish between crops for seed harvest and crops for consumption, he said. Canyon County is a major producer of seed crops, many of which are shipped elsewhere to grow food.

Canyon County spans over 386,000 acres; 52.3% of the land is cropland, he said. Of that land, 76.5% is used to grow the 12 most valuable crops grown in the county, he said.

From there, he looked at where these 12 crops are grown in the 10 County City Impact Zones, often referred to as Impact Zones. These are the areas surrounding cities that cities are “expected to develop and annex,” according to the current draft county comprehensive plan. The boundaries of these areas are “negotiated between city and county officials,” the draft says.

The picture looks bleak: Even if cities and counties limited development to these impact zones, the county would still lose 30% of the agricultural acreage used to grow the 12 most valuable crops, Anderson said.

“The way to look at it is, basically in this shot, it’s what you say you’re willing to sacrifice,” Anderson said.

This loss of farmland translates to a loss of more than $213 million in today’s dollars over 20 years, he said. He said this represents a conservative picture of what could happen because it does not take into account areas that could be developed outside of impact areas, and the overall estimate of economic value uses a conservative multiplier, a he declared.

Some in the county have complained that county commissioners are eager to approve the development because it means “adding more value to the tax base”, Commissioner Keri Smith said. She asked Anderson if any studies had been done that showed otherwise.

The American Farmland Trust has done a series of studies on the issue in different parts of the country, Anderson said. He didn’t study in Canyon County, but the University of Idaho did, he said.

Researchers have consistently found that for every property tax dollar collected on a farm, it costs about 40 cents to provide community services to residents of that land, he said. Community services could include fire or police services.

But when farmland is converted to development, it costs $1.20 to provide services to residents for every property tax dollar collected, he said. It doesn’t matter where development takes place in the country or what kinds of crops are grown, he said. Eventually the Farmland Trust stopped doing such studies because the results were consistent across all locations.

“Another way to look at it is that the property taxes you collect on working farms subsidize the cost of community services in your towns,” Anderson said.

This difference illustrates the need to balance the supply of the estimated 100,000 new residents who are expected to settle in the county in the coming years, as well as protecting and improving the county’s economy, he said. declared.

“We haven’t driven the tractor off the cliff yet, but now is the time to set those precedents before we become just another sea of ​​rooftops and malls and they’re all named after the farms they replaced,” he said.

Agriculture can’t just move elsewhere if development takes hold, Anderson said. It would not be easy to replicate the favorable climatic and water conditions present in the valley elsewhere, he said.

Many companies that have been recruited to the area have come because of the agricultural economy, Smith said.

“You’ll also have to replace those industries that might no longer thrive because products are no longer available at the rate they need them,” Smith said.

Companies in the region, such as Lactalis, depend on locally produced agricultural products, such as milk, to produce cheese and other products, as mentioned earlier.

Moreover, given the robustness of the seed production economy, it would be foolish to let the agricultural economy falter, Anderson said.

“Again, this idea that we have invested billions of dollars over several generations to create a highly viable economic center that not only feeds us locally here, but the seed industry feeds the world. … I think we have a certain responsibility as leaders to say, ‘Hey, you know what? We feed the world here. If we don’t protect that, it’s a (threat) to national security,” Anderson said.

One question that arose during discussions of the overall plan is whether the county should limit development to areas considered to have the poorest soils for agriculture, Smith said. But it’s complicated. For example, much of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail is on soil less suitable for farming, but the area has a thriving fruit industry, Anderson said.

Smith said the current political climate is difficult, with many people “preaching property rights without reading and fully understanding what property rights really mean in Idaho’s land use law,” adding that she hopes Anderson will return next year to speak to the new commissioners who will take office.

Anderson said he thinks it’s important to protect a farmer’s ability to do whatever they want with their land, including continuing to farm.

“What about my right to farm? What about my right to the ranch? ” he said. “I think as county leaders you have a responsibility to make sure Canyon County remains economically viable and to protect my right to farm.”

It’s unclear if every farmer wants to sell their land or if their only option is to sell to a developer, he said. Having a policy in place that supports a robust economy will make farmers less likely to want to sell, he said.

“As a farmer, as a landowner, it contributes to this robust economy, it sets a precedent very likely for my children to come back, continue to support another generation on the farm or, because my farm is so valuable, because I started off with $600 million in annual savings, so somebody else will want to come and buy my farm and keep it farming,” Anderson said.

A farmer who wants to sell his land will do so, and it will be impossible to avoid even with the best policies and plans to support farmers, he said. However, that would still mean the county did its best to support farmers and minimize sales, he said.

Commissioner Leslie Van Beek brought up the idea of ​​a farmer who is struggling to get by and asked if the government has the right to tell a farmer that he cannot sell his land or that he must sell his land at the opposite farmland price to what he could sell if sold to a developer.

If the county has done everything it can to protect farmland, including forming public-private partnerships, and some farmers still want to sell, then the county has always done everything it can, said Anderson. But if leaders haven’t done all they can, even more farmers could feel pressure to sell, which could dramatically fragment farmland, he said.

Smith said there seem to be differing ideas about how the government should intervene when it comes to different land uses.

“People like to have their house,” she said. “It’s a guaranteed right, but the second I want to set up a kennel or a pig farm or even expand a feedlot, all of a sudden the government has to tell you what to do, because it’s not is not OK. So I am very frustrated.

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