By SEAN ELLIS
NAMPA, Idaho -- Development in Idaho's Treasure Valley area is starting to pick up and a coalition of agricultural groups wants to ensure it doesn't negatively affect farmland.
"Agriculture is still the economic driver by far (in this area) and it's really important that we protect it," Coalition for Agriculture's Future Chairman George Crookham said March 20 during the group's annual meeting.
Idaho's population grew 60 percent from 1990 through 2007 and much of that growth occurred in Ada and Canyon counties, which are the state's two largest urban counties but also include a lot of farmland.
That rapid growth resulted in subdivisions being plopped in the middle of farmland and led to the formation in 2008 of the CAF, which includes more than 30 of the area's largest agribusinesses and ag-related associations and companies.
"Pretty quick, farmers were reduced to farming through the cracks," said ag consultant Dick Larsen, CAF's media director.
According to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Canyon County lost 25 percent of its ag land just from 1997 to 2002 and Ada County lost 7 percent.
While growth stalled during the recent recession, CAF members believe it's ready to start again based on total home sales, increasing home values and land transaction prices, Larsen said.
The group plans to work with county officials in southwest Idaho to revise comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances to ensure they don't allow development that impacts agriculture.
CAF members also plan to show up at public hearings to oppose projects that aren't compatible with agriculture.
The group plans a major education effort to inform people about the issue and increased its media outreach budget by $4,000 this year.
During the meeting, members pointed to a 380-acre parcel of farmland with center pivots just south of Lake Lowell that Canyon County commissioners recently rezoned to residential to pave the way for a subdivision.
The parcel is surrounded by farmland.
"This is what we want to prevent," Crookham said. "We don't think this type of rezoning makes sense."
John Ihli, regional crop manager for Nunhems USA, one of the world's largest vegetable seed providers, pointed out that many vegetable seeds need minimum buffer zones to ensure cross-pollination doesn't occur. He said some seed companies in the area have moved some of their production to other states or countries as a result of unwise development in the Treasure Valley.
"Urban and rural can co-exist, but you need a buffer zone," he said. "The isolation issue is a major issue for our business."
CAF members made the point that the group isn't anti-growth, it just wants it to be planned and compatible with agricultural land.
Larsen said if unplanned growth is allowed to continue to eat into farmland in the area, local agriculture will face major challenges.
"You can't turn a pickle back into a cucumber," he said. "That land is gone forever to agriculture."