Agriculture Threat

The future abundance of Idaho’s agricultural land and the robust agricultural industry it enables are not assured. 

While the agricultural land conversion threat faced by Idaho is low compared to other states, nevertheless, “development threatens Idaho’s agricultural land,” according to the American Farmland Trust, which has been working to safeguard America’s productive farmlands for four decades.

Bearing out this less than upbeat assessment, the National Resources Inventory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that in 2017 Idaho had 16 percent less cropland (the most rare of agricultural land) than it did in 1982.  

Five counties actually gained cropland acreage over that time period. But 38 Idaho counties experienced a net loss of cropland acreage.  Overall, the amount of cropland in Idaho dwindled from 6,432,600 acres to 5,423,300 acres, a net loss of over one million acres. (Most of those acres were not urbanized but converted to less intensive rural use such as pastureland, some of that switch caused by fragmented low-density residential development in the area.)
Table 5

Idaho Cropland
by County

Adams Bear Lake Benewah Jefferson Bingham Blaine Boise Bonner Caribou Teton Bonneville Boundary Butte Camas Canyon Ada -30% Clark Clearwater Custer Elmore Franklin Fremont Gem Gooding Idaho Kootenai Lemhi Lincoln Madison Minidoka Lewis Nez Perce Latah Owyhee Payette Minidoka Oneida Bannock Power Jerome Twin Falls Valley Washington Cassia Total

In looking at all Idaho agricultural land (not just cropland), the American Farmland Trust’s detailed studies in 2020 identified the “extent, diversity, and quality of each state’s agricultural land–and where this land has been converted to both urban and highly developed (UHD) and low-density residential (LDR) land uses.”

The evaluations contained good and bad news. Overall, Idaho’s “relative conversion threat” was rated “low” compared to other states. But Idaho’s “relative policy response” to farmland threats was also rated as low, with the state receiving among the lowest scores for its policies and programs aimed at protecting farmland from development, promoting farm viability, and facilitating the transfer of agricultural land.

Despite Idaho’s wealth of agriculture, the evaluations still considered Idaho’s farmland to be at serious risk of conversion, that is, of urban development.This occurred in two ways:

  • UHD (Urban & Highly Developed) land use, including commercial, industrial, and moderate-to-high-density residential development
  • LDR (Low-Density Residential) land use, characterized by scattered large-lot development, e.g., minimum 5-acre lot  size
LDR development fragments the agricultural land base and limits production, marketing, and management options for working farms and ranches that linger.  LDR encroachment often facilitates further, much denser development.  
American Farmland Trust (AFT) estimates that farmland in LDR areas was 122 times more likely to be converted to the intense UHD land use within 15 years than other farmland not located in LDR areas.  In other words, rather than LDR representing a long-term or ultimate land use, it is often the first step in a process or transition: the eventual development, conversion, and permanent loss of agricultural land.

And what of the future? AFT has also peered into the crystal ball and prepared a range of future scenarios for Idaho (and other states) for the year 2040. If recent trends were to continue (“business as usual”) 113,100 additional acres of Idaho agricultural land would become urbanized or fragmented between 2016 and 2040

More than 80% of that conversion would occur on Idaho’s best agricultural land, and would be associated with the loss of 700 farms, $72 million in farm output, and approximately 1,500 agriculture-related jobs.

Ada, Canyon, and Kootenai counties would undergo the heaviest losses. However, if Idaho policies were to encourage compact development to minimize urban sprawl, under what AFT calls the “better built cities” scenario, farmland conversion could be limited to an estimated 64,800 acres, which is 81,500 acres less than the 146,300 acres that would be converted under the “runaway sprawl” scenario.

Nonetheless, our study demonstrates that, regardless of “better built” efforts, Idaho farmlands and agriculture will continue to be faced with tremendous development pressure from demographic forces as long as the state’s rapid population growth continues (See our study’s full agriculture section.) 

Most Idahoans remain strongly supportive of the state’s agricultural tradition and preserving productive farmland, as shown on the “Irrigation” page of this website and in their answers to one question in particular in the recent August 2023 public survey conducted for this study by Rasmussen Reports.

Government data show that the United States now has about one-third less cropland for each American than it did 30 years ago.How important is it to protect U.S. farmland from developmentso the United States is able to produce enough food to feed Americans in the future?

81% 14% 3% 2% 0% very important somewhat important not very important not sure not at all important