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As Residential Demand Grows In The Treasure Valley, Farmers Fight To Keep Their Land

Josie Erskine is walking up the driveway, hands muddy, to take a break from weeding her plants.

Josie and her husband Clay own 30 acres in Canyon County called Peaceful Belly Farm. From their land, there’s a clear view of the Owyhee Mountains as they roll across Idaho’s Southwest.

They grow around 90 different varieties of organic vegetables. And Josie is committed to keeping this land productive.

“We're all dependent upon patches of green,” said Josie Erskine, “for our food, for clean air, for clean water, it's patches of green that does it.”

She’s also the District Manager of the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District.

Just eight miles south of the Erskines' farm lies McIntyre Farms.

Loren McIntyre, the farm’s namesake and patriarch, is the third generation to work this land.

“I started farming when my father passed away when I was 17,” he said.

And now his children and grandchildren are helping him. The McIntyre family owns 600 acres, and leases 600 more. They grow seeds, feed and are known for their pasture-raised beef, poultry, eggs and hogs.

Over the decades the McIntyres and the Erskines have seen the increased demand for housing in the Treasure Valley, and the conflicts that sometimes come with it.

McIntyre remembers being out cutting clover seeds once before sunrise, when a new neighbor complained to him.

“...And I said, ma'am, this is the only time I can cut your seed by you, you're the one that moved out here," he said. "This is the AG Zone. She was not happy.”

McIntyre remembered being nervous as he continued his work. This was also around the time one of his hogs was shot and killed in the middle of the night.

Josie Erskine has also been squeezed by development. This Peaceful Belly Farm is actually the second iteration. Before 2017, they were in the Dry Creek Valley until developers came to that area. She was an organizer and tried to stop the development, but eventually gave in and moved out to Canyon County.

“I left the Dry Creek Valley knowing that it was going to be developed,” she said, “so even though I helped that effort, I never believed that it was going to be saved.”

Both Erskine and McIntyre said they have fielded numerous offers to sell their land to developers.

“Big dollars have been thrown at us to sell,” McIntyre said.

There’s a good reason for that. The Boise metro area is one of the hottest housing markets in the country. There just aren’t enough houses available for all the people who want to live here.

Zoe Ann Olson is the director of the Intermountain Fair Housing Council. She said having people in homes is paramount, but there also needs to be access to green spaces, water and locally sourced food.

Jaap Vos is a professor of Planning and Natural Resources at the University of Idaho. He said housing is seen as a higher use of the land. He’s also part of a monthly meeting with county planners all around the state. This group started because it was concerned by the increasing demand to buy up farmers' land for development and seeing little being done to protect farmers or their way of life from being lost to residential growth.

“We see agriculture and farming as something secondary,” he said. “Something that still needs to be better, and a bustling metropolis is worth more than agriculture.”

People obviously need food to eat. And many of them want that food to be locally grown. So, Loren McIntyre and Josie Erskine are looking for ways to conserve farmland.

Loren McIntyre will pass his farm down to his kids, but that’s no guarantee for the future.

Josie Erskine hopes she’s found another way – a conservation easement with the Treasure Valley Land Trust. The trust gets the residential and commercial property rights but she gets to keep the land for agriculture.

If things go right, she’ll get some money from the federal government for the easement. But if she sells the farm, it won’t fetch the price it would typically get on the market because it has no residential and commercial property rights.

Loren McIntyre is also considering an easement to protect his farmland.

Erskine said it’s a tough choice, but it’s where her values lie.

“It seems like in our kind of economic system or our capitalist system, maybe you should get your head checked if you put your land into an agricultural easement because you're literally just giving away millions of dollars,” she said.

But, both farmers say it’s essential to preserve green space, uphold farming tradition and secure a local food supply.

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