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Idaho a major global player in seed production

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

CALDWELL – A good chunk of the world’s seed production occurs in the Treasure Valley of southwestern Idaho.

Because all farming starts with seed, that makes the Gem State a major player around the globe when it comes to food production.

“Our climate is one of the best in the world for growing seed crops,” says Meridian farmer Richard Durrant, who grows wheat and barley seed in addition to several other crops.

Most of Idaho’s seed production happens in and around Canyon County in southwestern Idaho but the state’s seed production area also extends to part of the Magic Valley in southcentral Idaho and a slice of eastern Oregon in Malheur County.

That area is one of five major global seed production regions in the world, according to Roger Batt, executive director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Seed Association.

“We have a saying in the seed industry: It all starts with the seed,” he says. “Seed is the cornerstone of agriculture. If you don’t have seed production, you don’t have a food supply.”

Most of the seed produced in this region is vegetable seed and farmers here grow about 60 different types of vegetable seed, including for major crops like onions, sweet corn, beans and carrots.

That seed is exported around the globe and is used to grow a large amount of food for the world’s 8 billion people.

“Idaho has a good reputation in the seed industry,” says Lorell Skogsberg, global supply lead for large seeds for HM Clause, a major global seed producer that has a seed facility in Nampa. “Most of the world’s major seed companies operate in this valley.”

Seed is a $600 million industry in Idaho and that total reaches $750 million when Malheur County in Oregon is included, according to Batt.

The state’s main seed production area is in Canyon County.

According to farmers and seed industry experts, the region’s climate is ideal for producing vegetable seed, which can be much more sensitive to certain growing conditions than other crops.

Southern Idaho’s dry, hot summers are ideal for producing seed and the availability of irrigation water from the state’s reservoir systems is a huge plus.

The region’s cold winters limit insects’ ability to thrive and the arid climate reduces the types of plant diseases that can survive here.

“There are plant diseases elsewhere in the country that we don’t have here in the Treasure Valley,” says IEOSA President Kevin Osborne, the production manager for Allied Seed in Nampa. “The Treasure Valley of Idaho is very unique when it comes to climate.”

Caldwell farmer Matt Dorsey, who grows radish seed, bean seed, carrot seed and triticale seed, says the area’s hot, arid climate is ideal for keeping down pressure from mildew and fungus.
“We have a drier, warmer climate … that makes it a good place to grow seed crops,” he says.

Frost-free growing days and the use of gravity or drip irrigation as opposed to sprinkler irrigation, which carries more disease risks with some vegetable crops, are other factors, according to the region’s farmers.

“It’s a unique area,” Skogsberg says. “It’s hard to find areas that have all of these factors.”

George Crookham, CEO of Crookham Seed Co. in Caldwell, says the main reason the region is such a great seed-producing area boils down to the fact that farmers here live in a high desert with adequate water supplies.

“Name another high desert with adequate water in the world?” he says. “We’re a high-desert climate with adequate water. That explains everything. We have a very unique environment.”

There are other regions with better soils, Crookham says.

“What they don’t have is they don’t have our environment,” he says. “With our water and environment, we can pretty much make any soil work.”

“All of the major vegetable seed companies in the world have a presence here in the Treasure Valley,” Crookham adds. “There is a reason they are here.”

“The reason those seed companies are here is because of our climate and our abilrity to produce seed in a desert because of our reservoir systems and the irrigation projects we have,” says Batt.

Durrant says because the Treasure Valley area is a desert climate, the region’s farm fields don’t get untimely rains that other areas receive that can impact germination rates.

“Because we only irrigate when it needs to be irrigated, we can end up with a better germination rate on those crops,” he says.

While the Treasure Valley is a great place to grow seed crops, it’s also one of the fastest-growing areas of the country and that is posing a growing challenge to the region’s seed industry.

During the IEOSA’s annual meeting in November, David Anderson, the Idaho program manager for American Farmland Trust, told seed industry members that just shy of two square miles a year of ag land in Canyon County is being converted to development.

As more development occurs in the valley and farmland is lost as a result, that reduces the acreage available to grow certain seed crops that require minimum isolation distances to avoid cross-contamination with similar varieties, Osborne says.

“When you funnel your farm ground down, it actually limits how many types of seed crops you can put in,” he says. “That really affects a lot of the crops that we have in the seed industry.”

According to Anderson, about 49,000 acres of the valley’s top 12 crops are on the chopping block for development.

“That’s a really scary number,” says Batt.

He says preserving farmland in the valley is the top issue for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Seed Association and the organization will poll industry this year and work with other farm groups to try to find a solution.

“We will be working on this topic over the coming year and hopefully we’ll come up with a really good solution in 2024,” Batt says.

He says the goal is to find a reasonable solution that preserves a farmer or rancher’s private property rights and ability to sell their land if they choose to but also offers them the ability to be compensated financially if they voluntarily agree to preserve their farmland for a certain number of years.