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The economic and cultural value of Idaho’s ag industry is undeniable.

Published online: May 21, 2021 Articles, East Idaho Business Tyrell Marchant, Editor of Potato Grower and Sugar Producer Magazines
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A dear friend—someone who has for years lived and raised a family in rural Idaho, though obviously not on an actual farm—once mentioned to me how remarkable it is that my family is so educated, well-read and well-spoken, considering they’re all “just farmers and cowboys.” 

I won’t lie, I had to grit my teeth and force a smile before managing to get out what I hoped was a sincere-sounding “thank you.” My day job may be spent largely at a desk in front of a computer monitor, but I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Idaho farm kid at heart. As such, hearing unfair and uninformed judgment passed on the ag community offends my sensibilities. This friend really was sincere in her praise, but her comment inarguably deserves to be filed under “Backhanded Compliments.” She clearly did not understand or appreciate everything agriculture contributes to Idaho’s economy and culture. She’s certainly not alone.

For the uninitiated among you, allow me to broaden your enlightenment. Most of your “just farmer” neighbors have dollar values that register in the several millions going in and out of their businesses every year. If they’re still on the farm, they likely possess some of the most astute business minds you’re ever likely to come across. They interpret weather and economic forecasts on a daily basis. They intimately understand and are involved in government at the local, state and federal levels. They are on a first-name basis with the most capable lawyers, bankers, politicians, tech nerds and scientists in the region. And, despite the dirt and grease under their fingernails, they would comport themselves just fine in D.C. or Manhattan or Paris, thank you very much.

Cash receipts from Idaho’s livestock and crops total about $7.5 billion annually; food and beverage processing bring in another $8.5 billion. Per the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, agriculture and food processing combine to generate 28 percent of the state’s total economic output in sales and 13 percent of its GDP. We boast the fifth-largest state ag economy as a percent of GDP. A healthy portion of our robust manufacturing sector is focused on agricultural solutions. The University of Idaho’s Idaho Falls Research & Extension Center—in tandem with other research centers across the state—is home to some of the world’s brightest minds in plant pathology, entomology and soil biology, all here to serve the region’s agricultural needs.

Idaho produces some 185 commodities from about 24,000 farms and ranches, the vast majority of which are still family-owned and operated. We rank No. 1 in production of potatoes (big surprise, right?), barley, peppermint, alfalfa and trout; No. 2 in sugarbeets and hops; No. 3 in dairy products; and in the top 10 in more than a dozen other commodities. 

Of course, more value comes from Idaho’s farms than just the inarguably impressive dollar amount they generate annually. That kid who rogues potatoes and pulls rye out of the wheat field all summer may never set foot on a farm again after he turns 18—but he’ll dang sure know how to work hard as an engineer or city planner or football coach. Driving 10-wheelers at harvest is what keeps Hank, the widowed, retired middle school principal down the road, feeling young at 84. And what better way for a kid with a diamond ring burning a hole in his pocket to get to know the family than being subjected to the dust-cloaked, 16-hour workdays of spud harvest in Ririe or Rockford, Hamer or Hibbard?

Take a Sunday drive up I-15 or down some gravel road, and you’ll see pivots delivering precious water to fields of flowering spuds, ripening wheat and sunshine-painted canola. If you’re lucky, you might spot a graybeard rancher and his granddaughters sitting horseback, urging a bunch of mama cows to greener pastures.    

I don’t know where you came from or what brought you to this corner of the world. So long as you’re the good neighbor type, it doesn’t much matter if you can tell a spud digger from calf puller. We’re excited to have you here. 

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