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Idaho dairy farmers produce more milk and cheese than almost any state in the nation. Idaho is ranked third behind California and Wisconsin.

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

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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