A black cat hunted in the mowed stubble, slinking through shadows cast by the trees growing along an empty irrigation ditch at Spaulding Ranch. Farmed continuously from the 1890s to the 1990s, the 20-acre parcel adjacent to Capital High School is now surrounded by homes. The city of Boise owns the land and, though its plans for the acquisition are still in flux, city leaders hope to use it to educate the public on agriculture within city limits.
"The plan is to preserve and retain the structures that are on site ... to remodel and use for classrooms or an exhibit," said Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway. "We have a really cool barn to the south of the house that really has some great educational opportunities for turn-of-the-century farming practices."
The city acquired Spaulding Ranch in October as part of a land swap with Los Angeles-based development company Local Construct. Since then, Boise Parks and Rec has conducted minor refurbishment and repair work on the buildings while a public process determines exactly how the land and structures will be used. Holloway said neighbors want to keep the ranch as an open space and not "turn it into a typical 'park.'"
The outcome of the public process is unlikely to make Spaulding Ranch a commercial farm again. Instead, it will be a museum piece—a reminder of a bygone way of life in Ada County, before housing developments and urban sprawl have more than halved the amount of farmland since World War II. County planners, nonprofits and farmers, however, are keeping the issue alive.
As Ada County develops its comprehensive plan for development through 2025, a handful of farmers and advocates are pressing for protections to preserve farmers' livelihoods, access to locally grown foods and open spaces.
"Right now, Boise's considered one of the best cities with a great quality of life. No doubt, because it has all these open spaces, but it's not going to stay that way if our whole valley looks like the stretch between Boise and Nampa," said Josie Erskine, who serves as district manager of the Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District and co-owner of Peaceful Belly Farm.
Agriculture has long been central part of the Gem State economy, especially in southern Idaho. A 2012 census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed there were almost 25,000 farms covering nearly 11.8 million acres in Idaho—up from almost 11.5 million acres in 2007. In Ada County, however, farming has been on the decline. In 1939, more than 17 percent of the county was being used for agricultural purposes. By 2014, it was less than 8 percent.
The culprits are urban growth and housing developments as the population of the Treasure Valley has ballooned. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were nearly 206,000 people living in Ada County in 1990. A decade later, there were almost 301,000 residents. The Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho projects Ada County will have as many as 675,000 residents by 2040, with upwards of 60,000 people living in unincorporated areas.
Vince Matthews, Idaho state statistician for the USDA, said unlike neighboring counties where agriculture is thriving, Ada County is particularly susceptible to pressures that diminish farming.
"Urbanization pressures tend to shift away from farming altogether. Some of those that remain are compressed," Matthews said. "I think the difference between Ada County and Canyon [County] is there's still farmland out there that isn't being impinged upon by the urban fringe, so they're remaining the size that they have been."
The population of Canyon County has grown as well, but trends in the number of agricultural operations and farm sizes in both counties differ widely. In a 2002 farm census, USDA counted 2,233 and 1,420 farms in Canyon County and Ada County, respectively. A decade later, Canyon County had added almost 100 individual farms and Ada County had lost nearly 200.
Farms also tend to be larger. In 2002, there were 1,915 farms between one and 179 acres in size in Canyon County, compared to 1,287 in Ada County. In 2012, there were 1,148 farms in that size range in Ada County and 2,025 in Canyon County.
For Matthews, subdivisions in places like Boise, Meridian and Kuna have reduced connectivity between farms and unleashed economic forces that have caused them to cede ground—literally.
"It starts a downward path because the more houses that are closer to farmland, the harder it is to farm that remaining land, and farmers start making decisions about whether they're going to farm their land or sell it so someone can build houses," he said.
Erskine hopes to stall or even reverse that trend. As Ada County prepares to implement its 2025 Comprehensive Plan, she has lobbied for the county to take decisive action to protect farmers in order to preserve agriculture as a way of life, but she said there are side benefits to keeping farming in Ada County.
"Ag land provides an essential quality of life for people. It's the same quality of life that, say, within five minutes you can be on a bike trail," she said.
Erskine's wish-list includes the creation of a county-run panel or task force dedicated to addressing agricultural issues, a survey of farmland conducted by an entity like the National Resources Conservation Service, earmarking an "agricultural corridor" that would improve farmland connectivity and the issuance of land easements to encourage farmers to continue using their land for food production.
Agricultural easements are near the top of her list. Easements are incredibly complicated, involving three parties, including the NRCS, farmers and usually a nonprofit, to donate or purchase the use of land in perpetuity. The applications are then scored based on a slew of factors, with lands threatened by development being given some preference.
"One of the criteria on our ranking sheet is the threat of development," said NRCS Easement Coordinator Wade Brown. "That kind of property is going to get that maximum points for threat of development. All things being equal, that's the kind of property that's going to get funded."
Brown said agricultural and environmental easements have been acquired across Idaho, and farmlands in Ada County would score highly on the NRCS easement checklist on account of being at particular risk from development.
So far, that hasn't happened.
"I can tell you right off the get-go we have no easements in Ada County," Brown said. "That's historically, since we started the easement program. We've never closed an easement in Ada."
Typically, NRCS works with third-party organizations that would serve as an intermediary between it and the landowner. In the past, those have included nonprofits like The Land Trust or The Nature Conservancy. The prospect of working with a county to obtain easements would be novel.
"That sounds like a very interesting route to take," Brown said. "It's interesting from the standpoint that easements—and this is just my opinion—would allow landowners to retain ownership to their ground but also be paid for those conservation values that we'd be easing within them."
As Ada County began developing its 2025 Comprehensive Plan, it sought public input on what its development priorities should be. Agricultural and open spaces preservation ranked just behind curbing traffic noise at the top of the list, prompting commissioners and plan developers to take a hard look at the issue.
"Behind traffic, it emerged in the top two or three," said Ada County Community and Regional Planner Megan Basham. "Traffic was pretty loud. Right behind it, open space and agriculture preservation. We just kept hearing that over and over again. It was fairly loud."
Ada County consulted with Denver-based BBC Research, which provides economic analyses to clients across the country. BBC developed what Basham calls the "Ag Toolkit," which includes a variety of potential solutions ranging from forming an agricultural coordination panel or paid position, and using easements or a similar process of purchasing development rights from farmers.
BBC led a community planning session on the subject in February 2016, and the county is currently soliciting public opinion on how it should proceed.
"This is really just a jumping off point for Ada County," Basham said. "We haven't said, 'Oh, we're doing this, we're doing that.' We're just getting the discussion started. We don't have a specific path forward yet."
The next step for the county is to finalize the public process and run the results past Ada County administrators and the commission. That includes gathering data on agriculture and seeking funding sources for programs in the toolbox, as well as looking to other cities, counties and regions that have successfully found ways to hold back advancing urbanization to protect rangelands, farms and other open spaces.
Basham said she has been researching purchasing land use development rights, which she said are increasingly popular and "almost interchangeable" with easements. She noted the most successful programs across the nation include preservation boards. The benefit of a preservation board, she said, is precedent.
"We're looking at forming a task force, and Ada County would probably have a staff liaison to that board," she said. "That's what our plan currently has in it. Ada County has an open space task force; it'd be something similar to that."
Agricultural preservation hasn't been a priority for the county historically, and it barely factored into the creation of its 2007 comprehensive plan. The role it will play in the plan currently under development is unprecedented.
"It's not something the county has actively pursued in the past, and in that sense it is doing some catching up," Basham said.
It could be 12 to 24 months before a plan is finalized and the public starts seeing the results of the county's work in that area. Meanwhile, developers and other parties continue to purchase farmlands across Ada County, adding to the pressures felt by local farmers. For farmers like Erskine, the county's time frame for enacting a plan is too long.
"What the public is saying is, 'Do something,' but how they're working is, they have to run it through this and that, and it's, like, you're talking four and five years down the road," she said. "It's going to disappear before a solution is put in place."
At Spaulding Ranch, a flock of small birds perched atop leafless trees in the waning light of day, then took flight in unison, abandoning their view of the former farm, the West Bench and, far below, Garden City. For a century, the land there was tilled and bore fruit before busy streets and mid-century homes finally surrounded it.
While its neighbors have told the city they'd like to keep the ranch an open space, farmers in Ada County are fighting to avoid its fate.