Breaking News
More () »

The state of family farms in the Gem State

Statistics show that while family farms still make up the majority of farms in our state, there are fewer of them.

BOISE, Idaho — All the growth in the Treasure Valley comes at a cost. Prime development land also happens to be prime farmland and a prime climate for growing food. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found farmland in Canyon and Ada counties is disappearing faster than any other area of the Gem State, as the Treasure Valley continues to top lists as one of the fastest growing places in the nation.

“The growth, I suppose, is good. But it creates a fair challenge. Then you kind of wonder if you're really that smart staying here. You might be better to move somewhere else,” farmer Tyler Reynolds, who owns a dairy and farm in Kuna, said. 

While it's the backbone of Idaho's economy, farming in the Treasure Valley looks different than it did, even just a decade ago. Statistics show that while family farms still make up the majority of farms in our state, there are fewer of them.

Farmers are aging out and younger generations aren't as interested in farming. It's grown much more expensive to run a family farm and to get into the industry to begin with. 

Doug Gross has farmed his whole life.

“This is all very close to me. I can show you where I first drove my first tractor at five years old,” Gross said.

In all his 48 potato harvests in Wilder, Gross feels pride. He now owns a potato farming operation in Wilder. Gross and his employees start with bare ground and then grow millions of pounds of potatoes to sell off to Simplot.

“You're always real proud of what you've accomplished. Over time we’ve built a successful business. We're proud of what we've done and we're quality-based and we've been somewhat rewarded for that,” Gross said, “It's very difficult to walk away from something you've been doing for 48 years.”

Although his acreage quadrupled since starting his own business - owning 1,000 acres and renting or trading 2,000 more - his family farm is considered smaller than average.  

The USDA now defines a family farm as “any farm in which the majority of the business is owned by an operator and any individuals related to them by blood, marriage, or adoption, including relatives who do not live in the operator's house." 

Based on their yearly sales, family farms are defined as small, large and very large.

As equipment and technology evolve, and yields triple, owning a family farm is growing more expensive. Additionally, profit margins are shrinking.

“It’s very risky. Our input costs have gone up so much, fertilizer, fuel, labor costs,” Gross said. 

Farm estate planning advisor Ryan Baker says the rising cost of land is deterring farm growth.  

“People can't go buy land and produce enough off of it to pay for the land that they're purchasing. So it just doesn't work. And for families who already have the land, they can make so much more money selling it than farming,” Baker told KTVB.

Developers offering hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre in the Treasure Valley raise the prices of land for farmers who not only own but also rent land, like Gross.

“Developers are offering farmers, in a lot of cases, a very pretty penny for their land. And a lot of farmers, you know, see that as their retirement and they're selling their farm,” Idaho Farm Bureau spokesperson Sean Ellis said.

With the price of land rising, farming ground in the valley isn’t as profitable or sustainable.

“I’ve actually had to buy land to keep developers from building houses right next to the farm shop,” Gross said.

Mostly, the rapid growth puts pressure on farmers to sell and either retire or buy in more affordable outskirts. Some of those farmers are buying in outskirts like Wilder.

"They don't want to have to pay capital gains tax so they're out here trying to buy ground around us and elevating the value of the land and making it more difficult for us to buy or expand,” Gross added.

The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture taken between 2012 and 2017 shows 96 percent of farms in Idaho are still family owned and operated. It also shows fewer farms are creating more food.

“As farmers retire, other farmers buy their farmland and the average size of the farm keeps getting bigger,” Ellis told KTVB.

Idaho lost 100,000 acres of farmland in that five-year period, according to the census. When the updated census comes out in 2024 the Idaho Farm Bureau expects that number to be even higher.  

“It’s a major issue. Right here in the Treasure Valley is the hotspot for loss of farmland in Idaho,” Ellis added.

The Census of Agriculture also shows Canyon County has the most farms in Idaho, followed by Ada County. Most farms in Ada are smaller than the average Idaho farm. 

Ellis said that according to the Census of Agriculture, Ada County lost 22 percent of its farmland from 2012 to 2017, and Canyon County lost 10 percent of its farmland during that same time.  

As that land disappears, many farmers say they have to "farm between the cracks," meaning they have to farm between subdivisions.

“It’s difficult. Moving equipment around is a real challenge. We have cattle strung out in yards all over Ada and Canyon counties,” Reynolds said. “You start taking out little pockets of really nice ground and it's gonna create a real challenge for people all over the world.”

As the average age of the farmer in the United States rises to 58-years-old, so does the financial barrier for younger generations to get into the industry - if they're even interested in the first place.  

“The profit margins in our industry are quite narrow, quite low,” Gross said, “And that combined with the work-life balance that takes place on a farm is always the most advantageous.”

“Farming takes a lot of long hours, a lot of long weekends. You're never fully disengaged from it,” Gross’ wife Mary Hasenoehrl said.

Thirty three year old Reynolds agrees, recognizing that you can’t be a farmer if you don’t absolutely love it.

“It's a lot. It's every day, 365 days a year," Reynolds said.

His  family grows multiple crops. 

They needed to grow in order to stay competitive and allow him to come back home after college. So they started the dairy. Reynolds says they are tiny compared to other dairies.

“There’s only a few other guys as little as us left. The way we can compete is we raise all our own feed so that we're vertically integrated,” Reynolds said. “To continue to operate you need to get big enough to create some efficiencies. It's really hard to buy big expensive equipment that creates efficiency if you don't have enough acres to amortize the expense over.”

To keep feeding Idaho's farms, economy – and the world -- the Idaho Farm Bureau created a farmland preservation committee to work toward solutions.  

“That committee consists of 15 farmers and ranchers from across Idaho. They came together for a whole year, and they're discussing possible solutions to try to stem the loss of farmland in Idaho.   

 Idaho can look to other states for possible solutions, like farmland conservation easements.  

“The farmer puts their land, voluntarily agrees to put their land, in conservation easements for perpetuity, which is a fancy word for 'forever,' and the land is agricultural land forever. But they also get paid a certain amount per acre to do that,” Ellis said.

Ellis also said that any answer Idaho implements must respect private property rights. No farmer, rancher or landowner can be told to sell their land if they do not want to, especially if they’ll be able to cash in and retire off their land.

Farmers can also protect themselves and their land by creating succession plans.

“How do we preserve this legacy? How do we involve kids who are maybe not farmers and aren't actively involved in the farming operation but still have them involved in the legacy and keep the farming operation going?” Baker said.

Gross wants his kids to take over the land that means so much to him. Instead, because his kids don't want to run the farm, two of Gross’ long-time employees will buy out the operation.  

“The world needs good productive farmers and we're gonna help feed the world. And I think the economics will improve and possibly we can modify the work schedule and make it more attractive,” Gross said. “You have to have an environment and a culture that attracts people to it and they want to come be a part of this. Make work fun for them.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds hopes to pass his operation down to the next generation, whether it's the chunk of dirt he currently owns or another chunk of dirt somewhere else in Idaho.  

“I’m cautiously optimistic that Idaho is still gonna have family farms and it’s still gonna continue a tradition of agriculture for the rest of my kid's generation, anyway,” Reynolds said. “It's becoming challenging and the challenges have changed. But every challenge seems to create new opportunities.”   

Watch more Local News:

See the latest news from around the Treasure Valley and the Gem State in our YouTube playlist:

Before You Leave, Check This Out