Coalition fights loss of Idaho farmland

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Farmland abuts residential development in Meridian, Idaho. Rapid population growth in IdahoÕs Treasure Valley has led to the loss of farmland in cities like Meridian, which grew from 35,000 to 75,000 residents from 2000-10.

Population boom leads to demand for more commercial development

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

NAMPA, Idaho -- A coalition of agricultural interests will meet March 14 to discuss how to prevent more of Idaho's farmland from being replaced by concrete.

Total farmland in Idaho has decreased 18 percent since 1982, from 13.9 million acres to 11.4 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That works out to an average of 7,000 acres or 11 square miles a month lost to urban and commercial development.

The bulk of that loss has occurred in Ada and Canyon counties in Idaho's Treasure Valley area. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Boise, the state's largest city, which is in Ada County, added 20,000 residents from 2000-10, while Nampa in adjacent Canyon County grew from 51,000 to 81,000 people.

Other Treasure Valley cities such as Meridian, which mushroomed from 35,000 to 75,000 people, also experienced rapid population increases during that time.

The Coalition for Agriculture's Future, which includes 25 agri-businesses and ag-related associations, was formed in 2008 to help stop the rapid loss of farmland. The group will establish goals for the coming year during its annual meeting March 14.

Idaho's 60 percent population increase since 1990 has led to an intense demand for land to accommodate urban and commercial development, according to CAF Executive Director Roger Batt.

Batt said the loss of farmland threatens Idaho's agricultural industry, as well as the state's economy.

According to estimates by University of Idaho economists, agriculture accounts for 16 percent of the state's total jobs and 20 percent of total sales. A 2010 UI study partly funded by the coalition found that the loss of one acre of cultivated farmland in Canyon County results in a $16,000 hit to that county's economy.

Batt said the coalition has sought to slow the loss of agricultural land while allowing for necessary but controlled development.

"The coalition has made major strides in its efforts to combine managed growth with the preservation of agricultural lands," he said.

The group successfully guided a bill through the Idaho Legislature last year that strengthens agricultural protections in the state's land-use planning laws. That bill requires local governments to analyze the role agriculture plays in their communities when considering planning and zoning decisions.

Winery owner Gina Davis, president of coalition member Canyon County Farm Bureau, said the goal of preserving agricultural land is a balancing act.

While Farm Bureau believes in preserving farmland, she said, the group also supports preserving farmers' rights to develop their property as they see fit.

"We're always for keeping farmland as farmland but we're against putting restrictions on (farmers)," she said. "Farmland is their 401(k). We definitely don't want to take away property rights for farmers."

The CAF meeting begins at 2 p.m. at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Nampa. More information can be found online at www.agriculturesfuture.org

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