BOISE — In rural Idaho, farmers often refer to the Boise area, which is in Ada County, as “the Great State of Ada.”
It’s not a term of endearment.
As the state’s population center rapidly shifts to the Boise area, Idahoans involved in agriculture see the prospect of more urbanites with less understanding of agriculture wielding more clout in the state legislature.
The question they ask one another has no easy answer: What can they do about it?
“Currently it’s not a problem, but I am concerned in the long term,” said Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican farmer from Twin Falls. “When I run into people in Boise ... they just don’t comprehend what we do and why we do it.”
They fear the problem will only continue to grow as Ada County grows. Idaho’s population grew by more than 27 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and much of that growth was in Ada County and adjacent Canyon County, Idaho’s two most populous.
For example, Ada County grew by 29 percent and Canyon County grew by 44 percent. At the same time, the population of such rural areas as Bear Lake and Caribou counties shrank by 5 percent or more.
Ada and Canyon counties now have a combined population of 641,689 — 39 percent of Idaho’s total population of 1.65 million.
“The power is shifting to Ada County,” said Sen. Mark Harris, a Republican rancher from Soda Springs in Eastern Idaho. “Every time there’s a census, that area picks up more seats in the legislature and rural areas lose seats.”
Idaho’s population growth is among the fastest in the nation due to a couple of main factors, according to Craig Shaul, a research supervisor at the state Department of Labor.
Idaho’s job growth is among the nation’s fastest and “a lot of those jobs will be located in urban centers such as Boise,” he said.
The state is also attracting retirees looking to settle in a quiet area with a high quality of life and access to good medical care.
Don Tolmie, production manager for Treasure Valley Seed Co. and an Idaho Bean Commission member, said he’s concerned about the political ramifications of the population shift. He’s equally concerned the shift will result in a loss of farmland in Ada and Canyon counties.
“Agriculture doesn’t have the voice it once had in Idaho and, sooner or later, we are going to be forced out,” he said. “And I’m not sure the general populace in Idaho gives a damn.”
Idaho has 35 legislative districts; 13 of them are in Ada and Canyon counties. At the opposite end of the scale, District 32 in the southeastern corner of the state encompasses four counties: Bear Lake, Caribou, Franklin and Oneida. Districts are based on the population.
The growth spurt is projected to continue, too.
According to COMPASS, a southwestern Idaho planning organization, the combined population of Ada and Canyon counties will increase from 646,000 now to more than 1 million by 2040. That means those two counties will have 43 percent of the state’s total population.
Some farmers, including Mark Darrington of Declo, said the loss of rural Idaho’s clout in the legislature is inevitable and the industry needs to make sure it continues to employ high-quality lobbyists who can make sure urban lawmakers understand the important role agriculture plays in the state’s economy.
Agriculture drives economy
According to University of Idaho economists, agriculture is the state’s top economic sector and is responsible for one of every seven jobs in the state, 20 percent of total sales and 14 percent of Idaho’s gross state product.
“Absolutely we stand in danger of losing our agricultural clout and of course that’s a concern,” Darrington said. “But I don’t know how you can change the way the (system) is set up. The rules are the rules of how we make legislative districts.”
He said that makes it more important to ensure that legislators understand “there’s a huge economic engine out there that drives the state that is outside of Ada County.”
Food Producers of Idaho Executive Director Rick Waitley said folks in the farming industry “should not assume ... that legislators, because they are from the urban area, are not understanding and sympathetic to the needs of the agriculture industry.”
“We need to always be mindful to look for every opportunity to promote, educate and advocate for agriculture when we can,” said Waitley, who is also state director of Idaho Ag in the Classroom. The nonprofit sends volunteers into school classrooms to teach students about agriculture.
Tolmie, the bean commission member, was less hopeful about the ability to “get through” to urban folks, some of whom already hold strong opinions about farming.
“Education is probably the solution but very few people truly want to be educated” when it comes to production agriculture, Tolmie said. “They want the romantic version of a farm — 2 acres, organic and some chickens. But the reality of farming, they want nothing to do with.”
Random interviews with half a dozen Boise residents showed mixed results when it comes to their understanding of farming and support of production agriculture.
Jacy Stevens has lived in Boise five years and works at a hair salon. She said she doesn’t have strong opinions on issues such as genetically modified crops, organic foods or the use of pesticides.
“I don’t know how to produce food so I’m not going to sit there and tell (farmers) they can’t use pesticides if that’s what they need,” she said. “I’m not a professional in that field, so any choices that (farmers) make when it comes to organic or the use of pesticides, all of my trust goes into them ... because they obviously know how to grow food.”
Others had stronger — and divergent — opinions about hot-topic agricultural issues.
Rick Hobson, who has lived in Boise since 1959, said it’s important to support farmers — “That’s where we get our food” — but he also said pesticides, genetically modified crops called GMOs, the die-off of honeybees and climate change are important concerns to him.
Farmers, particularly big ones, “want to make a profit but they need to be held accountable,” he said. “The average citizen in Boise, as well as rural residents, needs to have influence on what’s going on with them.”
Darrell Defabry, who is in the real estate business, said he loves farmers: “Why wouldn’t you?”
But when asked if that includes bigger farms, he admitted, “I prefer smaller farmers.”
He also prefers non-GMO crops, as does Christopher Cook, an attorney.
But while Defabry said he wouldn’t vote to ban the planting of GMO crops in Idaho, Cook would.
“I would support a ban on (GMOs),” Cook said. “There are so many subsidies for (farmers) that I’m not really concerned about their ability to make money. I think they’re doing pretty well. I think they should think less about profits and more about sustainability and people’s health.”
Opportunity to educate
Rep. Gayle Batt, a Republican from Wilder and member of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, said the writing’s on the wall that Boise will be the next Portland or Seattle, meaning that urbanites will use their political clout to make decisions for the rest of the state.
But rather than shun or fear those urbanites, agriculture needs to try to understand and reach out to them, said Batt.
“We need to look at them as opportunities for education and not fear them,” she said. “It would be a mistake on our part if we didn’t know what they are thinking and kept ignoring it.”
Harris, the Republican rancher, stayed in Meridian, a fast-growing suburb of Boise, for almost three months during the 2016 legislative session. He said there appear to be plenty of people in Ada County who still understand the important role agriculture plays in the state.
On the flip side, “As people get disconnected from the land, they lose interest in it,” he added.
“I think people for the most part still understand the importance of agriculture,” Harris said. “But agriculture can’t drop the ball. We have to keep educating people.”