BOISE — When agriculture talks, the Idaho Legislature understands.
That’s because legislators in Idaho have a wealth of knowledge about farming and ranching that few other Western state legislatures enjoy. At least 25 of the state’s 105 representatives and senators are current or retired farmers or ranchers or actively involved in agribusiness, according to a list compiled by Food Producers of Idaho and reviewed by Capital Press.
When it comes to understanding farm-related legislation, “It certainly makes it easier if there is a basic understanding of agriculture to start with,” said Sen. Bert Brackett, a Republican rancher from Rogerson.
With 24 percent of the Legislature, ranchers and farmers also hold many leadership positions.
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakey, is a rancher, and the House Majority leader, Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, is a farmer and rancher, as are Gov. Butch Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little.
Five of the Idaho Senate’s 10 committees and five of the House’s 14 committees are chaired by legislators involved in agriculture.
“We’re fortunate to have so much ag representation in leadership positions,” said Brackett, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “That kind of sets the tone for the Legislature.”
When the Legislature is making decisions that could impact agriculture, it helps to have that kind of farming knowledge base in the legislative body, said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, a retired farmer who is still involved in agribusiness.
“It’s nice to have a bloc of folks who have an ag background and understanding of agriculture and how those bills will affect agriculture,” said Bair, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.
Idaho legislators debate hundreds of proposed bills each session and are tasked with setting the state budget, which is $3.45 billion in fiscal year 2018.
Sen. Mark Harris, a Republican rancher from Soda Springs, said it makes sense that agriculture enjoys such good representation in the Legislature since the state’s economy and way of life largely revolve around it.
‘An ag state’
“Idaho is an ag state. That’s what we do,” he said. “Everywhere you go in the state there is agriculture, from the north to the south and from the east to the west.”
Considering the agrarian nature of Idaho — 38 of the state’s 44 counties are classified as rural — “I think we represent our population pretty evenly,” Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican farmer from Twin Falls, said about the high percentage of ag industry folks in the Legislature. “We have a rural-friendly Legislature.”
The large number of Idaho lawmakers with a solid agricultural background makes it easier to help the legislative body understand the unique risks and challenges farmers and ranchers face compared to other businesses, said Russ Hendricks, director of governmental affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
Many other states don’t enjoy that benefit, Hendricks said. “We’re happy every day that we’re not in one of those other states.”
According to Oregon Farm Bureau Federation Communications Director Ann Marie Moss, it’s safe to say fewer than 10 percent of Oregon’s 90 legislators are involved in the farming industry.
She said, “it’s challenging for us to make sure agriculture’s story is told and heard at our Legislature because there are so few lawmakers with direct ties to agriculture.”
Based on a quick calculation, about 7.5 percent of Washington’s 147-member Legislature is involved in farming, said Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau Federation.
That low percentage, compared to Idaho, “is a great depiction of why (agriculture) is in such trouble within our state Legislature,” he said. “Folks (here) do not understand agriculture even though it’s the second largest industry in our state.”
Eight of California’s 120 legislators, or about 6.7 percent, are involved in agriculture, according to Dave Kranz, communications manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
American Farm Bureau Federation doesn’t track how many people involved with farming are in state Legislatures but “that is a very impressive number for Idaho,” said Mace Thornton, executive director of AFBF’s communications department.
Willing to learn
Idaho is not only blessed to have so many legislators directly involved in agriculture but “we also have many people who have been involved (in farming) but perhaps are in another career at this time,” said Rick Waitley, executive director of Food Producers of Idaho, an industry group.
A good example, he said, is Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, who was previously involved in a wheat farm in North Idaho.
Another example, Waitley said, is Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, an attorney who is chairman of the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee.
While not directly tied to agriculture, he grew up around farming and his “involvement in 4-H and love for agriculture has resulted in him being a tremendous advocate for agriculture,” Waitley said.
Agriculture is such a key part of Idaho’s culture and economy that most non-farm legislators inherently understand its importance or are willing to learn about it, several lawmakers and lobbyists told Capital Press.
“That is where I am sure we would outshine those states to our West,” Waitley said. “I hear other lobbyists in other states talk about how difficult it is to get lawmakers to listen. That would not be true of most Idaho lawmakers over the years. They may represent a lot of blacktop in their district ... but they are still open to listening about the issues that make Idaho’s agriculture industry a backbone to the economy....”
Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, represents one of the state’s most urban districts, but that doesn’t stop him from appreciating how important agriculture is to Idaho.
Erpelding, who has served on the House ag committee for six years, said he’s “always had a deep reverence for the farming and ranching community” since his career as an outfitter and guide also revolves around the land.
“I know how important it is to our economy,” he said. “If I can help people in my district understand the importance of agriculture, then I think I’m doing the state a service.”
The list of 25 Idaho lawmakers involved in farming or ranching would be much higher if it were expanded to include people with some type of involvement or intimate familiarity with agriculture, said Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican rancher from Midvale.
“A lot of legislators grew up in rural areas and their dad was a farmer or their grandpa was a rancher,” said Boyle, chairwoman of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee. “Just because they’re not actively involved in agriculture doesn’t mean they don’t have an ag background.”
“A lot of people in the Legislature not involved in agriculture are not that far away from it,” Harris said. “Even legislators not involved in agriculture see the importance of it.”
While Idaho’s Legislature has a high percentage of members with a detailed knowledge of farming, that might not necessarily be the case in the future, several legislators told Capital Press.
Idaho is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation in population and most of the new arrivals are moving to the state’s main urban area, around Boise in southwestern Idaho. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Idaho ranked third in percentage population growth from 2015 to 2016, behind Utah and Nevada.
The Legislature lost a few rural seats during the last 10-year redistricting and that looks to continue, said Bair and others.
If someone looked at the makeup of Idaho’s Legislature 40 years ago, the percentage of people involved in agriculture then would probably be closer to 40 or 50 percent, Bair said.
“Each time redistricting takes place, we lose a couple more rural seats and we gain a couple more urban seats,” he said. “I think that does not bode well for agriculture.”
The Legislature’s representation moving toward urban and away from rural Idaho “is always a concern,” said Rep. Clark Kauffman, a Republican farmer from Filer. “But I think for right now we’re in pretty good shape.”