I attended an economic development Business Plus lunch recently at which a question was asked about the importance of agriculture to the Magic Valley and Southern Idaho economy. I’ll paraphrase the question as “shouldn’t economic development do more to encourage agricultural growth in the region?”
It’s a good point, but if you look around, there’s been a lot of support for agricultural processing across the Magic Valley in recent years. Processing plants for milk and dairy products are common, and our potato processing industry and sugar beet processing continue apace. Additional new startups, such as a hemp manufacturing facility for insulation, are on the horizon. So is a cattle processing facility.
Economic development efforts traditionally focus on manufacturing, tourism, hospitality, sometimes on retail and employment sectors like call centers. These tend to get the most press coverage, because they’re easy to spot and everyone drives by them, even journalists.
Often overlooked are the day-to-day sectors which maintain and drive our local economics. Those trucks out on the highway, combines and corn pickers working the fields, the cattle yards taking in hay and shipping cows to market may not be as visible as the new hotel, but collectively, they carry the bulk of Southern Idaho’s economy.
We’re an agricultural valley, and in many ways that shapes our quality of life and our economy. Economists sometimes referred to concentrations of industries near their sources as a form of “economic geography.” Who would have imagined it, but seafood processing plants are often near oceans, or spring waters for trout as in the Magic Valley. Tourist towns like Ketchum are usually near good recreational amenities including mountains and hiking and skiing.
Here, one of the real pluses of the region is the diversified economic base. We have strong sectors in healthcare, specialized manufacturing, food processing, and an agricultural production sector with many components. It’s an enviable balance that many communities would love to show.
Almost anywhere you look you can see examples of agricultural innovation. This past month, for example, a new intermodal truck-to-rail transfer facility opened Pocatello. This allows Southern and Eastern Idaho products like hay to be loaded onto railcars in containerized volume and shipped to Asia from West Coast ports. So the cows being raised and fed in Korea and China are munching on alfalfa grown throughout the Idaho region. How amazing is that?
Just this past month, a new startup processing plant for industrial hemp was announced for Jerome County. It’s a new product that adds diversity to farm rotations in a new insulating material for construction. This hemp isn’t what you’re thinking. It’s not for smoking. It’s for insulation in homes and other buildings. (TN, 9/22)
Meanwhile, a new agricultural research center is being developed in the dairy sector. The CAFÉ project will have a dairy farm in Minidoka County, a visitor center at Crossroads Ranch in Jerome County, and a university-led research component at the College of Southern Idaho. Funded by private contributions as well as state money, the intent is to lead the next generation of dairy research, in both nutrition and waste management.
The UI announced this past week that the 2,000-cow research dairy is on track to open in 2023 and will utilize a $2 million, 60-cow DeLaval rotary milking platform, with state-of-the art equipment. (UI Ag, 9/22).
Overall, the local agricultural sector with its diversified crop base came through the pandemic party well. Yields were off due to the hot summer, but prices were pretty good and most farmers came through. We agricultural states in the nation and certainly in the West have once again shown resiliency by focusing on the basics: plant, grow, process, sell and transport.
Everybody today knows today how important the dairy sector is to Southern Idaho. The growth of just that one sector over the past 30 years has been truly phenomenal. In 1990, alfalfa was about a $50 million per year crop.
Today, it’s a leading crop with a value of over $1 billion. Most of that due to the demand for alfalfa hay as a dairy food. That in turn has given us the dairy sector with value of over $2 billion, much of which is generated in the region.
And that’s not overlook important sectors like cattle, potatoes, sugar beets, beans, barley, wheat, and aquaculture, each of which adds tens of millions of dollars in production and processing. You’d be hard-pressed to find any region of the country with this diversified agricultural profile.
Sure, razzmatazz visible projects like housing development, hotels, new store openings and so forth always generate headlines, but when was the last time you saw a large headline on Idaho’s wheat production, dairy industry or sugar beet processing?
As William Jennings Bryan once said, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” True enough. True enough.
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