For generations urban sprawl into America’s farmland has been felt all across the nation. Areas of Utah, Arizona and California have experienced heavy urban sprawl over the past 30 years. Those growing up and farming in Idaho’s Treasure Valley and other areas of Idaho have no doubt felt it as Idaho (currently ranked #2 behind Nevada) quickly climbs the list of the fastest growing states in the union. Throughout the generations, urban sprawl has ebbed and flowed with upward and downward trends in the market, but if you ask locals, the latest trend seems stronger than ever, especially in the Treasure Valley. In recent years, many Idaho farmers close to growing urban areas have been faced with questions like, “Is it time to hang it up?”, “Should I move and try to start over?”, or “Will my children even be able to farm this ground in the future?”
Greg Mai, Leland Earnest and Doug Thurgood are all farmers around Nampa, Idaho. All three recently shared some of their insights and urban farming experiences with The Sugarbeet, Amalgamated Sugar’s longstanding company publication. Doug has spent the better part of 40 years living and farming just a block north of what is now the Ford Idaho Center. George Schroeder has been a Crop Consultant for Amalgamated Sugar in Nampa for close to 35 years, and Doug’s local Consultant for the last 12. Together, the two of them have seen Nampa grow from a town of 25,000 people to well over 90,000 in a just few short decades. Since holding their first classes in 2009, College of Western Idaho, next to the Idaho Center, has gone from about 1,100 students to over 31,000 in 2018. And to add just a little more to the chaos, an 991,000-square foot warehouse nicknamed “Project Bronco” is now going in on 61 acres just a mile southeast of Doug’s homeplace farm. Although the business behind the development hasn’t been officially announced yet, Panattoni Development Company, Inc is the developer. Panattoni is known for being one of the principal developers for Amazon and has built several Amazon distribution centers around the world. At least for Doug, to say that urban sprawl has been on the rise the past few years is an immense understatement.
Urban sprawl has deeply affected the way many Treasure Valley farmers like Greg, Leland and Doug conduct their day-to-day affairs on the farm. In a world where many farms are trying to grow their operations and their equipment is getting larger and wider, farmers like these three are downsizing or spending money to modify equipment to make maneuvering easier around subdivisions, new traffic patterns, round-abouts and other motorists – very real obstacles on what use to be quiet country roads. As more urbanization transforms our historical farmland to modern residential and commercial purposes, things like sharing shops with neighbors to reduce the amount of long-distance movement of equipment and planning around rush hour for a smoother transition have become quite common. “Moving equipment is challenging in these heavily urbanized areas. In fact, on some roads in the area, growers have certain times of the day to move equipment. If they don’t follow the rules, they are subject to fines from local authorities”, says Doug. Leland, who farms just north of the Nampa factory, has to avoid some areas altogether because it’s just too dangerous for himself and others. “We seldom have a year without an insurance claim from moving equpment”, says Ben Jantz, who farms west of Nampa. As of late, Ben finds himself using pilot vehicles more often to guide equipment and warn oncoming traffic of potential hazards.
“Rush hour in Nampa used to be 7:00-8:30AM and then again from 4-5:30 PM allowing growers time slots to move equipment and haul their crop to town without impeding on those commuting to work. Anymore, that rush hour starts as early as 4:30 in the morning with just a couple hours slow down during the middle of the day and then it strings out later into the evening. And you can forget about mud,” says Doug. He continues, “If we have a very wet fall and have to mud the beets out like we’ve done in years bygone, those living in close proximity wouldn’t appreciate the muddy roads and could create some very hostile environments for all that are involved.”
At the peak of beet harvest any one of these farmers might only have a four or five-mile haul to the factory, but it might take their trucks an hour and a half to make the round trip. This makes keeping within the Company’s temperature protocols very difficult and adds time to getting their crop harvested. Like any farmer, hauling the crop is their top priority, but to the motorists flying past the slow-moving beet trucks, it seems like these farmer’s crops are often just another thing standing between home and the office.
Simple movement around the farm isn’t the only challenge urban farmers are facing. Tasks like spraying their crops can be quite difficult as well – especially during times of the year when they are busy in wheat or harvesting other late summer crops. Urban farmers no longer have the luxury to call in an airplane to spray their beets or onions while they are busy doing other things because of their close proximity to new homes. Often, those crops are left on the back burner until the grower can get in to spray them with a ground rig – potentially hurting yields in the end. Flying pesticides in the Treasure Valley is all but extinct in these now urbanized areas. Often, even spraying with a ground rig is impossible to do without upsetting the neighbors. Ben and others have had the authorities called more than once due to homeowner complaints about what they are spraying. Even though most chemicals are harmless to humans, if it smells at all, the neighbors won’t like it. Growers have to make difficult adjustments like spraying during the night when the general populous is asleep.
Additional challenges such as sharing water with subdivisions, lawn clippings plugging the irrigation canals and ditches, residential and construction trash blowing and being dumped into their fields, road construction, and finding temporary truck drivers that can handle city traffic are things that most rural farmers don’t have to face. For Leland Ernest, farming north of the Nampa factory often comes with trespassing issues. Sometimes, he will find people walking along ditch banks or down private farm lanes which can produce liabilities for all involved.
Some urban farmers find themselves streamlining their crop rotations, growing crops that are less labor-intensive or require less seasonal maintenance to make it easier on equipment movement and labor costs. Greg Mai, who farms south of Caldwell, constantly worries when he plants a crop if it’ll still be there when the time comes to harvest it. “Rented farm ground could be sold that fast and we wouldn’t be able to get the crop off before development starts”, says Greg. Ben Jantz shares the same concerns as he currently rents from some of the local developers.
For Doug, tied to the challenge of finding good help is the proximity of his farm now to higher paying construction jobs. Doug has even had contractors pull into his farm trying to hire his help away at $5.00-7.00/hour more than what he could afford to pay to go work in subdivisions next door to his farm.
With the onslaught of development across the nation one must wonder if we have crossed a threshold in our national security. How much farmland can the United States afford to lose and still maintain an affordable supply of food? Not to mention the constant loss of livelihood for generations of family farms. A recent article by American Farmland Trust entitled “Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland”, states that from 1992 to 2012 the U.S. lost nearly 31 million acres of land to development. That equates to 175 acres per hour. Sixty two percent of that land loss was prime farmland. Of that, 59% resulted from expanding urban development and 41% was due to ranchette-style development.
As the population of the U.S. continues to grow at a rate of one person every 18 seconds, the case for further development certainly is a valid one. But at what cost? For now, urban farmers like Greg, Leland, Ben and Doug continue to go about their business as usual, despite their surroundings. The future may be clearer for some than for others, but for all, the same sentiment rings true: “No Farms, No Food!” These four farmers, and others without doubt, all agree that when it comes to urban development, the focus needs to be on preserving farm ground for future generations and the stability of communities and for our own national security.
Article from the Spring 2019 edition of The Sugarbeet, written by:
Lance Pitcher, Crop Consultant
Clarke Alder, Agronomist