© 2021 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Idaho dairy farmers produce more milk and cheese than almost any state in the nation. Idaho is ranked third behind California and Wisconsin.The biggest slice of Idaho's natural resource pie comes from agriculture. Along with mining and logging, it helped build the economy here. In 2010, agriculture and livestock cash receipts totaled about $5.8 billion according to Jay O'Laughlin at the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources. O'Laughlin reports more than $2 billion in cash receipts went to milk producers.Fast Facts: Since 1997, the annual revenue from the sale of dairy products has exceeded the annual revenue from the sale of potatoes. In 2004, the revenue from sale of dairy products surpassed the revenue from the sale of meat animals and is now the largest single source of revenue of any agricultural product in the state. In 2008, Idaho dairy farms produced 12.315 million pounds of milk an estimated value at over $2.1 billion. In 2008, 13,180 people were directly employed on Idaho dairy farms or in Idaho dairy product manufacturing plants. The majority of these jobs 9,571 were within seven south central Idaho counties: Twin Falls, Jerome, Gooding, Lincoln, Cassia, Minidoka, and Elmore. Of those 13,180 jobs, 82 percent, or 10,809 were on Idaho’s dairy farms while the remaining 18 percent, 2,371 jobs, were in Idaho’s dairy product manufacturing plants. The economic activity generated by dairy farming and dairy product manufacturing in Idaho also generates a significant stream of annual tax revenues to the State of Idaho. An estimated $106.9 million in annual tax revenues that are received by the State of Idaho can be attributed to the direct and secondary economic impacts associated with the dairy industry.Source: BSU College of Business & EconomicsThe Idaho Dairymen's Association reports there were 569 dairies in the state as of September 30, 2011.That’s a significant drop from just a few years ago when in 2008, 800 dairies were licensed to sell milk.While the number of dairies is on the decline in Idaho, the number of milk cows and the production of things like milk, cheese and cottage cheese are rising. According to a study from Boise State University’s College of Business & Economics which looked at the economic impacts of the dairy industry in Idaho, the number of dairy cows here is up more than 35 percent.

From Dumped Milk To Record Income, 2020 Was A Whirlwind For Idaho Agriculture

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio

For Idaho farmers, the COVID-19 pandemic began with milk rushing down drains and potatoes piled sky-high by roadsides. But things didn’t stay that way for long — Idaho ended up breaking its record for net farm income last year.


At the start of last spring, restaurant demand collapsed and niche food trends emptied certain grocery shelves. Those small changes shifted the entire market for farmers. 


But soon enough, supply and demand evened out and farmers responded. The prices potato farmers receive for their crop rebounded and so did those for milk — jumping from near-record lows in the spring to near-record highs late summer.  


“We had very good prices at the end of the year,” said Garth Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of Idaho, “and we had a lot of very good yields.”


Some sugarbeet farmers in Idaho saw record yields in their fields and extremely high sugar content in the beets, too.  


Taylor said all those factors combined meant Idaho had the highest net farm income on record in 2020, even during a pandemic. 


“Then you add on top of that — the frosting on the cake,” he said.


The frosting on the cake: government payments. Five hundred million dollars in COVID relief dollars were delivered to Idaho farmers in 2020. In total, government payments to Idaho were up about 290% compared to 2019 and made up 18% of the state’s farm income for the year. Nationally, the percentage was much higher. 


The kicker, according to Taylor? Idaho would’ve set a record for net farm income without the government subsidies. 


To him, this shows how Idaho agriculture is unique from other big farm states.


“Idaho agriculture is on a completely different path and a completely different composition than the U.S,” Taylor said.


For example, the record set in 2020 follows another breakout year for Idaho agriculture in 2019


Also, Taylor said, U.S. agriculture on a whole is dominated by corn and soybeans that garner large government subsidies even outside a pandemic. On the other hand, Idaho’s dominant agriculture industries are milk and cattle. Those industries are subject to different market shifts than crops, and they’re also lucrative, contributing to more than 50% of Idaho’s farm revenue. 


This year, the USDA expects government payments, and therefore farm income, will decline. 


But Taylor said, for Idaho, the thing to watch is milk prices.


“That’s the 900 pound gorilla that swings Idaho agriculture,” he said. That’s because dairy is the bellwether for Idaho agriculture, accounting for more than a third of the state’s farm economy. 


Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen  


Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio