Amid thousands of homes that make up the West Bench neighborhood, Spaulding Ranch is the last farm. Situated on 20 unblemished acres, the original, well maintained, century-old farmhouse, barn and outbuildings are all that's left of the 80 acres that the Spaulding family originally settled in 1896. Almon Spaulding worked the land as a productive farm while his wife, Mary, worked as one of Boise's first female physicians.
But over the last century, developers chopped up farmland on the West Bench and sold it to homeowners eager to live on larger lots and in bigger houses than their North End counterparts. Slowly, the Spaulding Ranch was subdivided, and found itself hemmed in by new neighborhoods, winding streets, cul-de-sacs and two-car garages. Now, at the edge of the property line, tall fences separate unused pasture from the manicured lawns of one- and two-story homes.
On one end of the property, a yard dotted with shade trees holds assorted structures once used on the productive farm. Nearby stands an idyllic red barn, once stocked with hay, and the Spaulding family home, built in 1905. A stone fence invites visitors into the shaded front yard before the picturesque two-story house. One can almost imagine a curl of smoke rising from the red brick chimney.
"Where else in greater suburban Boise can you find a 20-acre pasture surrounded as it is by housing?" asked Dan Everhart of Preservation Idaho, an organization keen to protect what's left of the ranch. "But you can look at it and immediately you can see what it might have looked like here, even 30 years ago, 40 years ago certainly. And by the time you get back 50 years ago, this was mostly undeveloped."
But developers could bulldoze one of the few surviving testaments of early Americana, paving over Spaulding Ranch to create rows of humdrum homes in a neighborhood already lacking any sign of its heritage.
Too often small pockets of metropolitan farmland have been dismissed as barren places ready for suburban development. Between 2002 and 2007, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, the housing boom consumed 14 percent of Ada County's farmland, while Canyon County lost 4 percent. Yet fertile land with ditch irrigation is a vanishing nonrenewable resource.
"Agriculture is our heritage," said Idaho's Urban Land Institute, reporting in 2012. "It is a lifestyle choice, and a way to build community. Small- and large-scale commercial agriculture is an important economic engine that generates jobs and livelihoods."
Outside of Boise, farmers still make a living on agriculture. Janie Burns owns and operates Meadowlark Farms, raising livestock and crops on a farm in Nampa. Burns' land supplies farmers markets and families. Fifty years ago, and 50 years before that, farms like hers were common on the bench south of the city. Burns said qualities like access to water and other resources attract farmers and developers to a piece of property. But over time as farms are squeezed out by residential communities, agriculture, as a practice, will wither on the vine.
"For example, let's say a farmer used to be surrounded by farms, and now they're surrounded by houses. So you don't have anyone who can help you, and farming--there's a lot of independence and there's also a lot of dependence, including on your neighbors for their skills, and maybe their manpower during parts of the year," said Burns.
Jaap Voss, director and associate professor of Community and Regional Planning at Boise State University, spoke about the phenomenon using different terms. Voss centered in on the values established by a community.
"I always tell people I was born right next to a cheese factory. I can tell you, it stunk. But I never complained about it, because it was part of growing up in a rural area," he said.
Those values can be upended by rapid growth, as new communities move into once rural areas and fill them up with different priorities.
"Everybody who lived in town was related to agricultural activities. Nobody really cared until there was a new suburban development from people who came from another part of the country, who didn't share in the community," said Voss, who grew up in The Netherlands. "It was basically because they came from a very different background, didn't understand the values, and didn't understand what was going on in these other communities."
Burns said it's hard for a community to realize the impact of dwindling farmlands, in part because food still shows up on grocery store shelves.
"It's so insidious, the loss of a farm going out of business, and a subdivision going in," said Burns. "It takes time and it's not a jolt to the system, it's just a slow leaking wound. It's a death by a thousand cuts."
THIS IS CALLED URBAN SPRAWL
Not long after Harvey and Katherine Caron purchased the property from the Spauldings in the 1940s, the city annexed the growing area.
"In the mid '60s--I think at the objection of a lot of people who were already living up here--the city annexed at least this part of the Bench, encouraging further development," said Everhart. "Because as soon as you have annexation, the city's responsible for all the infrastructure, like sewer."
Everhart called it a "classic" tale, one that's not unique to Boise.
"This is called urban sprawl. And it's actually much less urban sprawl now because we're much closer here to the urban core than they are in Kuna, so it's hard to call it sprawl. But in reality, that's what it is. And it's all triggered by the post-war proliferation of the personal automobile, and the ability for someone to leave their job in the city and drive 10 minutes and be somewhere where they can have a single family," he said.
Boise historian J.M. Neill, in his manuscript City Limits, wrote that even in the 1950s, officials recognized the problem posed by the growing, amorphous boundaries of the Boise metropolitan area. Its people, however, seemed reticent to do anything to slow the march of "progress."
"Boiseans have long since accepted the apparent inevitability of westward metropolitan growth, placing the city at the eastern edge of an increasingly extended urban area now stretching over 30 miles to Caldwell and beyond," wrote Neill.
It's a trend that began in the city's early years, first with the North and West End neighborhoods settled by wealthy businessmen and blue collar workers alike, just short streetcar rides away from downtown Boise. After World War II, the growing economy, rising population and cheap gas made new developments farther from the urban core a reality for many Boise families. Located just miles from downtown, the West Bench area, then just outside the city boundary, experienced the early stages of encroaching urban development.