Steeped in rich agricultural heritage, Idaho's farmers and their private lands are feeding the nation and providing important wildlife and fish habitats. According to the Department of Labor, Idaho's agriculture sector contributes about $3 billion to the Idaho state economy. Our agricultural heritage has positioned our state as:
- #1 producer of potatoes and barley
- #4 in the nation for milk production
- A top seed producer where 85 percent of the sweet corn seed produced in the world comes out of Idaho
- Among the top 10 producers in the nation for 26 different crops and livestock
In urban centers, we are often removed from our agriculture heritage, its value to our state, and the issues that impact our farmers. If anything, urban circles hear more about the impact of non-point source water pollution caused by polluted runoff from agricultural areas affecting our rivers. However, this year I was invited by our IBO Board Member, Merrill Beyeler a rancher from Lemhi County, to attend Idaho's Ag Forum titled, Agriculture: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. This forum placed the urban/rural divide front and center in order to explore how Idaho farmers can best address the continued loss of farmland due to urbanization.
I heard a broad range of approaches raised to try to explore this problem - how do we feed a growing population as our farmlands are declining? What was clear is this issue had brought research scientists, policy makers, county leaders, farmers and ranchers together to consider best practices that would allow them to produce affordable food for our growing population in the face of shrinking farmland here in the Treasure Valley.
BSU professor, Dr. Jodi Brandt, a land-use scientist who studies landscape change and its drivers, and the impacts of landscape change on biodiversity and ecosystem services, presented her research. She has modeled predicted declines in farmland against the backdrop of predicted increases in Idaho's population to 2100. I also enjoyed an award winning speech delivered by a Meridian High School FFA student, Ashton Shaul. For Shaul "the solution is right in front of us," if we can get over our fear of biotech and GMO's. For her this growing field of science offers the opportunity to produce more food on less land, with less environmental impact. IBO's Board member and the Chairman of Lemhi Regional Land Trust, Merrill Beyeler, explained the way farmers might come together in their community like many of the ranchers in Lemhi County have done. Beyeler suggests voluntary conservation easements might help support conservation, wildlife habitat and trout runs as well as a viable path to keep their large ranches intact for the next generation.
It is clear that the future of farming in Idaho is not without challenges. Our end goals are the same as we work to preserve Idaho's land, as well as the fish and wildlife corridors and open space our farms and ranches provide.