Economic trends aren’t always easy to track because the raw data doesn’t make the news much, but if you look at the big picture, it’s apparent how agriculture is the dominant driver of Southern Idaho’s regional growth.
Sure, other sectors of the economy are important. Tourism, manufacturing, hospitality, health care and financial services all play important roles. Indeed, the Southern Idaho economy is better balanced across sectors than many American communities. (DataUSA, 2019)
New retailing pops up frequently on city commercial lots. So does new housing. So do new hospitality centers, hotels, restaurants and recreation sites. We drive by them every day, so it’s easy to spot them.
But it’s agriculture which brings in the revenue which is then spread throughout the region, supporting thousands of workers and millions in purchasing dollars and taxing districts. A new report by University of Idaho Extension researchers and outlined in this month’s Gem State Producer, highlights the sector’s dominant impact. Some top points:
The agriculture sector represents over 40 percent of the Southern Idaho jobs (43,000) and almost 60 percent of total regional sales. ($12 billion). It accounts for almost half of the region’s gross regional product of all goods and services, ($3.6 billion). The report also shows the links from growers and producers, through processors and agriculture services like implements, seeds and fertilizers. (Idaho Farm Bureau, Gem State Producer, 4/2021.
Almost half of the state’s total farm receipts come from the Southern Idaho region. ($3.6 billion). Of that, over 20 percent comes from milk production alone. Dairy, beef and potatoes are the largest portions of base sales. Virtually all (98.7 percent) of the region’s croplands are irrigated. That makes sense, as this is a dry, arid region with often less than 12 inches of rainfall annually.
Important trends and some break-throughs are leading the way in making the region the “Silicon Valley” of American agriculture.
First is the incredible productive land, water availability, climate and long growing season. These underlying features are often overlooked or not given the credit they deserve, but without them, we’d be a far-less-prosperous farming region.
Second, the innovative spirit of our agricultural community, from production to processing to transportation,. Everywhere you look, there’s innovative thinking at work, squeezing progress from water delivery to crop fertilizer application, milk cow monitoring to intermodal transportation, dairy research to consumer products like frozen potatoes.
A new intermodal rail containerization facility in Pocatello will help expand the region’s international sales. (Idaho State Journal, 3/25). The facility will handle some of Southern Idaho’s compressed hay for shipment to Asia, first to Pocatello and then by container rail to West coast ports.
The development of the region’s agriculture research is often “below the radar,” but can be seen in new products from milk processing to whey components. These innovations are sometimes propriety-driven by processors, but emerge frequently in new product lines and consumables. Research in dairy management and crop varieties for grains have expanded the “base” of tech-driven changes, and are likely to do so well into the future.
People may not think of agriculture as a “high tech” industry, but it is, and Southern Idaho has emerged as one of the nation’s leading agricultural regions. These trends aren’t new; they’ve been evident in the Southern Idaho economy at least since the 1990s.But now, they’re accelerating as new technologies, research and production expand in the region.
Correction: In a column (4/11), I overstated the number of Idahoans who’ve received COVID-19 vaccinations as 800,000. The latest figures from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare show almost 540,000 people in Idaho have received at least one vaccination shot, with the numbers increasing week by week.
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.