Farmers Seek Alternatives to Selling Land to Developers

Published online: Feb 12, 2018 Articles
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Source: Idaho Press

This editorial was put together by the Idaho Press’ editorial board, consisting of publisher Matt Davison and community members Jean Mutchie, Mikki Simpson, Kari Child and Bob Otten. Editor Scott McIntosh is a non-voting member. Potato Grower notes that the Idaho Press’ editorials are based on the majority opinions of its editorial board, and nNot all opinions are unanimous. The opinions reflected here do not necessarily represent those of Potato Grower or Harris Publishing.

 

The story plays out time and again throughout western Idaho and across the U.S., and it plays out 80 acres, 120 acres, 160 acres at a time.

Farmer Jones, who’s been breaking his back, picking rocks out of the land, trying to scrape together a living by growing corn, potatoes and sugarbeets and maybe keeping a small stable of dairy cows for the past 40 years, decides it’s time to retire, finally get that hip replacement surgery and spend his time going to minor league baseball games. Problem is, his children are all grown and have careers of their own—not in farming—and have no interest in taking over the family farm.

Young, up-and-coming farmers don’t exactly have the means to buy out an 80-acre farm that now sits right next to a subdivision in a fast-growing city whose boundary is now at Farmer Jones’s doorstep.

Developer Smith comes along with plans to turn that 80 acres into a subdivision of 240 houses at $250,000 apiece, for a potential $60 million payday. He knocks on Farmer Jones’ door and offers to buy the land for $12,500 per acre—a cool $1 million cash.

Ten years later, some old-timer drives by the now-called Jones Estates subdivision and recalls, “I remember when this used be just fields as far as the eye could see.”

And so it goes.

Last week’s Ag Forum, put on by the Nampa Chamber of Commerce in Nampa, Idaho, tackled the fascinating topic of disappearing agricultural land in the Treasure Valley and the rest of Idaho.

Jodi Brandt, who teaches at Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design, showed that if the Treasure Valley’s population continues to grow at the current rate, the area would lose 190,000 to 220,000 acres of farmland by 2100.

Separately, a BSU survey found that about 80 percent of respondents were concerned about the loss of ag land in the Treasure Valley.

So what can you do about it?

Today, Farmer Jones has very few options if he wants to hang up the boots and hat.

Idaho state senator Todd Lakey, who was on the panel discussing the issue at the Ag Forum, is right to urge caution against government regulation. He rightly pointed out that Oregon’s strict laws about developing ag land is not the right solution.

But our solution can’t simply be to shrug and say, “Property rights.” Based on the course we’re on, pretty soon, we’ll be getting all our potatoes from Oregon, and the sugarbeet trucks coming into the Amalgamated Sugar plant will be coming from Nevada. Given that roughly a quarter of Canyon County’s economy is derived from agriculture, we don’t think that’s a viable prospect.

Two panelists at last week’s Ag Forum provided perhaps the most promising solution: conservation easements.

Lemhi Regional Land Trust chairman Merrill Beyeler and executive director Kristin Troy talked about how their efforts have kept 14,000 acres of ranch land in Lemhi and Custer Counties in agricultural production.

Canyon County development services director Patricia Nilsson, also on the panel, recalled how a county in Pennsylvania, when she worked there, passed a bond to preserve farmland with great success, and another bond is in the offing.

These easements could be a viable alternative for a farmer or rancher to cash out and comfortably retire, would keep the land in agricultural use, and could open the door for the next generation of farmers to enter the field.

Whether these easements are executed through taxpayer-funded bonds, private land trust fundraising efforts or government-sponsored tax incentive programs, they seem to provide the most viable alternative for a farmer looking to get out of the business.

But who’s leading the charge? With 80 percent of the population concerned about the problem, why is no one doing anything about it?

As Nilsson said about the issue, “Where is the leadership?”