CHALLIS – Custer County is sparse on people – 4,275 according to the 2020 Census – but big on cattle, which is the county’s top agricultural commodity in terms of revenue.
It’s the state’s third-largest county by area but close to 90 percent of the land in Custer County is owned by the federal government.
“We’re a big county land-wise but most of that is federal land,” says Challis rancher David Philps, president of Custer County Farm Bureau.
That means ranchers in the county are heavily dependent on federal grazing allotments to make their operations work.
But, according to ag producers in the county, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to graze cattle on federal land there because of several lawsuits that have made that no easy task.
“We’re real dependent on grazing on federal land and that keeps getting tougher and tougher on us ranchers to do,” says Jim Chamberlain, a Challis rancher. “It’s a yearly battle.”
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, ranchers in Custer County brought in $24 million farm-gate revenue during the 2017 census year, making cattle the top ag commodity in the county by far.
According to the ag census, there were 31,167 cattle and calves in Custer County in 2017.
Those cattle need somewhere to graze and lawsuits by environmental and animal activist groups have made it increasingly difficult to do that on federal land in the county, says Custer County Commissioner Steve Smith, who owns a cow-calf operation and grows his own hay.
“Those lawsuits have really had an impact on things,” he says. “They make it harder and harder for ranchers to utilize their grazing allotments.”
The grazing on federal lands issue is one the commission constantly deals with, he says.
Smith says the commission and others in the county also hope to revive logging as an industry in Custer County, which lost its mills because of lawsuits.
Bringing back logging as an industry in Custer County is a major goal but funding to restart a mill will be a big challenge, he says.
“Once you eliminate any kind of industry or manufacturing system, to start back up is prohibitively expensive,” Smith says.
Aside from grazing issues, Custer County Farm Bureau members also focus a lot of their energy on educating the county’s youth about the importance of agriculture in their lives.
“We try to get the youth to know where their food really comes from,” Philps says.
That includes taking students out to Chamberlain’s ranch during lambing and calving season, providing scholarships and educating kids and their parents about farming and ranching through the use of Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s MAC (Moving Agriculture to the Classroom) Trailer.
The mobile MAC trailer uses hands-on activities to teach kids about beef, wheat, dairy and other farm commodities.
“There are so many students out there who have no idea how their food is grown and brought to them,” Chamberlain says. “They think it’s just produced in the grocery store. We focus on elementary school students because they will carry that information through the rest of their lives if we can make an impression on them.”
CCFB also presents a ranch woman of the year award and an achiever award to a high school student who is helping out in the agriculture industry.
According to the 2017 Census of Ag, there were 267 farms in Custer County in 2017 and 148,000 acres of land in farming and ranching.
The average size of farm in the county was 554 acres, which was greater than the statewide average of 468 acres.
Almost 33,000 acres of hay and forage crops were grown in Custer County in 2017 and 3,283 acres of barley.
Thirty-two of the county’s 267 total farms were large farms of at least 1,000 acres in size, 38 were 500-999 acres in size and 93 farms in the county were small farms between 1-49 acres in size.
Seventy-four of the county’s farms brought in at least $100,000 in farm revenue in 2017 and 89 brought in less than $5,000.