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“The problem is Idaho is seeing unprecedented growth, right. And it’s not controlled, and it’s not directed, it’s just happening, it’s all based on money, which is fine. It’s a free market, that’s the way things are supposed to be,” said Tristen Winegar, Washington County Farm Bureau President.

“The problem is without agriculture you don’t have an Idaho, and I think people have lost sight of that. And so, my entire life everyone has always complained about all these fields getting turned into houses.”

Tristan Winegar says he and his family have farmed and ranched this land outside Weiser for generations.

“Everybody loves Idaho, the reason they love Idaho is because of the open country and the farm ground and the beautiful rivers and the forests, but yet when they move here, they change all that. And so, it’s kind of a catch 22 and we need to find a happy medium,” said Winegar.

Idaho Farm Bureau President Bryan Searle agrees.

“Idaho is growing at a record pace all over the state. We see record growth and I don’t know that we’re prepared for that growth and so as that happens, and a farmer or a rancher goes out and he farms and he tries to make a living, you fight the elements of the weather and getting loans from the banker, and all of a sudden somebody comes by and offers a whole bunch of money for your land and you’re thinking, Wow, that’s a lot of money and that could even help me and I could retire on that. And the next thing you know is instead of crops growing we have homes growing,” said Searle.

The US Department of Agriculture conducts a Census of Agriculture every 5 years, and according to its most recent data, Idaho lost 1% of its total agricultural ground from 2012 to 2017, which comes out to 117,000 acres. That’s a small amount of Idaho’s 11.7 million total acres of farmland, but in places where the population is rapidly growing like the Treasure Valley in southwestern Idaho, that loss is more pronounced.

According to the 2017 census, Canyon County lost 10% of its farm ground between 2012 and 2017, and Ada County lost 22% of its farm ground during the same period.

“Even though the growth is happening mostly here in the Treasure Valley, it’s happening all over the state. This is just where it’s the worst, and so the solution probably needs to come from here, but we need answers from everybody to make that happen,” said Winegar.

“I just got tired of everybody saying there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s nothing you can do about it, and I think that there is something that we can do about it and so I decided I wanted to try and explore those ideas. So, I presented it to my board, and I just said is this something we wanted to pursue, and it was an outstanding, unanimous yes, we want to figure something out,” said Winegar.

That idea eventually made its way to Idaho Farm Bureau Convention where the delegates voted to make it part of the 2022 Policy Book.

“The question is, is how do we go about doing it. And that’s where the beauty of Farm Bureau lies is it’s a grass root organization so the ideas and the solutions are going to come from our members,” Said Winegar.

So, to be able to sit around the table and have conversations in a way that is able to provide a means for farmers and ranchers to continue to do what they do and to make a living, to be profitable and yet provide an opportunity, I guess if some so desire to plant houses, then that’s what happens. But there’s even ways there that we can grow in areas that may be less productive land and looking at areas that don’t affect the most productive land that we have,” said Searle.

Besides encouraging home development on less productive land, they’re also looking at ideas from other states like agricultural preserves with lower property tax rates based on generated income and not market value. Winegar says their hoping to take the best of what other states have done and find a solution that fits Idaho.

“Lots of other states have done things, namely California with the Williamson Act. That’s the tax incentives to do it. There are states that reward people for keeping it in Ag,” said Winegar. “There’s lots of other possibilities. The tax incentive thing is the one that we’re leaning towards, but there also has to be a way to fund it as well.”

We were approached by multiple legislators, and they told us that we are looking for a solution and this year we are really, seriously going to talk about it. And what happened was they knew that Farm Bureau would want to be on the forefront of it, and they also know the pull and the influence that we can have and so they wanted us to lead. And to come up with the ideas and come up with the solution because they know that Farm Bureau comes up with good solutions” said Winegar.

“The other very exciting thing that they told us is there is support from both side of the aisle on this, and that’s going to make all the difference in the world.”

“The word comes to me of having a coalition,” said Searles. “A coalition is an opportunity to bring everybody around the table. This involves our cities, this involves our counties, county commissioners and our mayors and city councils. This involves our state elected officials and up the ladder. It involves all the ag organizations, every single one of them are important.

We need everyone to come and sit around the table and come with some solutions that we feel is important. And so far, that’s what we’ve heard. You take the legislators; we’ve heard from both sides of the aisle. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on, they recognize there’s a need here to have that conversation. We look into agriculture; we look into those individuals who are moving into this state and those who are out and about offering a lot of money for land. And we need to be on same page and come the best we can with some of the best solutions possible.”

Both men stress that any solution must be voluntary, and not impede a farmer or rancher who might be retiring, or whose children aren’t following in their footsteps, or for whatever reason… chooses to sell their land.

“And more power to them because they worked their whole lives, they worked hard and they have that right to sell that for that money, and that’s fine, that’s their right. And Farm Bureau is big on private property rights, we’re not going to try and take those away,” said Winegar. “But if there was a voluntary program that they could do that, it would be great. And really, I would like to see a program where it promoted that those individuals that don’t have anybody following in their footsteps, that they were rewarded for selling it to an individual such as myself or somebody else to keep it in agriculture.”

Winegar said it’s not about stopping growth, but preserving the limited lands for agriculture, because with the finite water resources in Idaho, you can have only so much ground in production.

“It needs to be a multi-faceted solution, needs to cover all the angles, but we really need to do this because Idaho’s at a tipping point and we’re just starting to see the repercussions of it, but we need to do something quick.

Hopefully the solution that we come up with in Idaho is an example to other states as to something they can do and maybe we can further this program other places.”

For the Voice of Idaho Agriculture, I’m Paul Boehlke.