Planners ignore food

Blueprints for county don't include farms


A recently produced map of Boise shows little green, blue and turquoise dots ringing the urban area. The colored swaths represent about 17,000 acres of small farm operations that truck on in the face of rapid urbanization.

"There's all these tiny little things," said Boise planner Tricia Nilsson, looking at the map that her office produced. "You can't tell from the printout what they are doing."

The bulk of this ground is grazing land in the sagebrush to the north and southeast. But based on agriculture property tax exemption records mapped by the city, almost 2,700 irrigated farm acres fall on the west and northwest reaches of Boise's urban impact area.

Download a map of Ag Land around Boise

With planners focused on transportation, growth and development, no one really knows what is actually growing on this land. Nilsson and a small group of farmers and farm advocates in Ada County want to find out.

"Agriculture is disappearing in this valley," said Deanna Smith, a community activist who works for Idaho Smart Growth. "There is a debate over whether to preserve agriculture at all in Ada County."

Smith helped convince Ada County's Blueprint for Good Growth, a group of elected officials from across the county, to consider a set of agricultural policies. The proposals range from ensuring the Boise valley gets enough food to protecting large commercial and small organic ventures from suburban encroachment to community gardening.

"I would like to see a task force formed in the Treasure Valley to look at ag issues in planning," said Josie Erskine, a Boise organic farmer who led the agriculture and farmland preservation group.

The subcommittee was scheduled to present its findings to the county commissioners and mayors who sit on the Blueprint for Good Growth consortium this week. The Blueprint is the latest iteration in an attempt to create common community planning principles across the county.

But the effort is coming to an end this month, and Erskine expects little to come from her group's recommendations.

Erskine said Ada County and most of its cities already have ordinances encouraging the preservation of agriculture and farming, but that there is no group enforcing these policies. She recommends adding easements, transfer of development rights or use of outright zoning to make sure that Ada County continues to grow its own food.

Ada County still had 1,420 farms in 2002, the year the last agriculture census went out, with 223,000 acres in production representing 33 percent of the county's land. Most of Ada County's farms have been small operations of less than 70 acres.

Ruby German rents out her 70 acres near Kuna to a dairyman so he can grow his feed. She has been on the farm since 1948 and it has been in her husband's family since 1928.

But German, 81, is not optimistic about the future of farming.

"Ada County is just too late," German said.

German has served on the county planning and zoning commission several times since the 1970s and is involved in the Blueprint. But she dropped off the agriculture subcommittee because she's not sure she'll preserve her own farm.

"My heart's not in that too good because farmers aren't too keen on somebody saying what you can do cropwise," she said.

For a time, German optioned her land to a developer for $3 million, she said, but the lots never sold and it did not work out for her. She's biding her time though.

German has been impressed by Erskine's Peaceful Belly farm and said that small organic farms are the way to go in Ada County.

"I think that organic is the only way in the world they can make a living on it," she said.

Smith and other planners agree that smaller scale urban agriculture could be the future of farming in Ada County and for urban areas across the United States.

"There are people who look at ag and think of only large operators," Smith said. "The potential for that kind of agriculture in Ada County is rapidly disappearing."

Still, German recalls the days of the small farm, and the Ada County data shows that there are still quite a few small operations out there.

When German moved out to the farm, everyone had a few cows, a few pigs, some chickens.

"Now look at the size of the dairies and pig farms," she said. "They're big. Nobody wants to live near those."

There is a strong movement for open space protection in Ada County. But the Blueprint initially passed the buck on farmland. The Ada County Open Space Task Force, another countywide effort, also failed to consider agricultural land preservation, focusing instead on open space and recreation.

So in February, Erskine petitioned the Blueprint for an agriculture subcommittee, which had only a few months to report back.

She said that the county needed to focus on agriculture from a few perspectives including the notion that farming is big business in Idaho. The obvious demand for food in Boise could be seen as a huge potential market.

Farms are also a form of open space people like to see. And fresh, local food is healthier.

While cities and the county consider air, water and shelter in their decision-making processes, they have largely ignored food.

"Planners have been involved in efforts to improve the quality of air and water through pollution control programs and more comprehensively in shelter planning. But the fourth essential, food, has been virtually ignored by planners," Erskine argued.

Food security and big business aside, there is a sentimental farming history in Ada County as well. Meridian celebrates its dairy "tradition" every summer and many of the cities have annual farm celebrations.

Smith thinks Ada County residents want to preserve some degree of agriculture: "The community is saying we do not want to lose the agricultural heritage."