By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
DRIGGS – About 115 Teton Valley residents got a close-up look at how farmers, ranchers and conservation groups are working together to protect water and soil during an Aug. 1 tour.
The four-hour bus tour, which visited a farm, ranch and the banks of the Teton River, was organized by Teton County Farm Bureau and was attended by interested community members, environmentalists and agricultural producers.
Five years ago, Friends of the Teton River, Teton County Farm Bureau, Teton Soil Conservation District and several conservation groups started seeking ways to work together instead of fighting over natural resource-related issues, as they had in the past, said Friends of the Teton River Executive Director Amy Verbeten.
The tour was a way to highlight the results of that cooperation to community members and show them that more can be accomplished when the groups work together, she said.
“We have been taught that farming and ranching and conservation are either-or propositions. They are not,” Verbeten told tour members.
“It doesn’t have to be recreation, clean water or agriculture,” she said later. “They should both be working together and benefiting each other. And they do; we just have to figure out how to communicate that and better harness that.”
She said the groups are working together to learn about and put on the ground practices that benefit farmers and ranchers and the soil and water.
“The most exciting thing about this is we’re actually getting things done on the ground,” she said. “We’re making real change and progress and we’re documenting that.”
TCFB President Stephen Bagley, who farms and runs a beef cattle operation in Victor in the south end of the valley, said local environmental groups and farmers had been at odds with each other in past years but that’s begun to change.
“Being able to sit down at the table, we have found a lot of common ground where they have helped us solve some problems and we’ve helped them solve some problems and to understand how things really work on the ground,” he said.
The tour was a chance to educate people about how the groups are working together and welcome questions and input from community members, Bagley said.
“We often throw mud at each other without understanding each other’s point of view,” he said. “The main point of this whole farm tour is to just open up the dialogue and see each other’s point of view.”
An example of how the sides are working together include a voluntary aquifer recharge program that could result in more groundwater returning to the river during the critical late summer months, when both fish and farmers desperately need it, said Rob Van Kirk, a hydrologic consultant for the Henry’s Fork Foundation.
“That benefits everybody who is standing here to get that done,” he told tour participants on the banks of the Teton River.
The groups are also supporting a soil health initiative and were able to purchase a no-till drill that is owned by the soil conservation district and rented to agricultural producers.
Other projects include experimenting with cover crops and different crop rotations to create healthy soil and prevent erosion into the river.
Friends of the Teton River is supporting a position that works with producers to measure and document soil health changes on their farms.
The conservation groups have strong fundraising and grant writing experience and “bring the science and money essentially,” Verbeten said, and “the producers obviously bring a tremendous amount of expertise in innovative agricultural best management practices.”
The Teton Regional Land Trust is also working with farmers and ranchers to offer voluntary farmland conservation easements that benefit both farmers and the land and water, Verbeten said.
Farmers are offered a financial incentive to enter into the agreements, which are in perpetuity and prevent the land from being developed but allow producers to continue to farm it. They can still sell it but it must remain in agricultural production.
Verbeten said local farmers approached her group about five years ago wanting to know if it would be willing to partner on projects that benefit the river, fish and land.
“I don’t think they got more than three sentences into the spiel before we said, ‘Oh heck yes, we would,’” she said. “This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve always hoped could be part of what we do.”
She said the conversations environmentalists had with these farmers was enlightening and refreshing.
“I don’t think most environmentalists expect to stand around with farmers and ranchers and hear them talk about how the river is the lifeblood of our community and how much they love the river,” Verbeten said. “And yet that’s been a part of this conversation from the beginning.”
Farm groups applauded the efforts that local conservation groups have made to work with them to solve issues rather than fight over them.
“In the past, there has been a lot of bad relationships between conservation groups and farmers and ranchers,” said Tyrel Bingham, IFBF’s regional manager in the Upper Snake River Valley. “This has been a page turned. This has given us an opportunity to realize we don’t need to be fighting with each other, but we can work together to benefit both the fish and the farms.”
More than 50 percent of the land in the Teton Valley is in agricultural production and the river’s presence has also resulted in a strong fishing and recreation industry that attracts millions of tourism dollars to the area.
Verbeten said the partnership has proven it’s possible to have a strong tourism and strong farming industry in the same place.
“There’s no reason we can’t have both,” she said. “There’s no reason we can’t have strong, healthy farms and a strong healthy fishing and recreation economy.”
Following the tour, event participants enjoyed dinner together.
The cooperation between the two sides started following the beginning of the voluntary aquifer recharge program, said IFBF Director of Commodities and Marketing Zak Miller.
“What the groups realized is that they have a lot more similar goals than opposing goals,” he said. “They’ve literally broken bread with each other tonight so now, if they are having some conflict in the future, hopefully they’ll talk it through versus wanting to fight about it.”
Verbeten said her hope is the cooperation can spread to other communities.
“We are documenting the successes that we are having here and hopefully we’ll see this type of approach start to spread,” she said.