Issue of: May 13, 1998  

 

 

Blaine County Commissioners have tried for years to preserve the south county’s agricultural lands and associated lifestyle. Despite a high demand for housing and soaring land prices in the north county, commissioners have halted development and instituted some creative planning and zoning to achieve their preservation goals in the south. Some agricultural property owners struggling to subsist on slim margins say they can no longer make a living off their land. They want the option to sell out to developers.

The bottom line on Baseline

Part one in a series on the future of agriculture in the Wood River Valley


By ANDREW M. SCUTRO
Express Staff Writer

m6ag2.gif (8609 bytes)One thing everyone who’s ever come down Timmerman Hill into the Wood River Valley on State Highway 75 in early summer can agree on is that the green patch of farmland known as the Bellevue Triangle is quite a sight.

A good part of that big, green welcome mat of crops is tended by third-generation Blaine County farmer Bill Sherbine.

Bill and his son Rocky farm 3,000 acres in and around the Triangle, a disputed agricultural district at the mouth of the Wood River Valley.

The Triangle may look idyllic and peaceful from the road, but its landowners have been battling the county for years over what they are allowed to do with their land.

The landowners want to be able to farm, then sell their land when it’s time to retire. When the property changes hands, the county wants it to remain agricultural.

That wouldn’t be a problem if agriculture was a thriving business in Blaine County. The landowners say it’s not.

Stagnant crop prices and skyrocketing costs have Sherbine, who will be 63 in July, wondering how much longer he can stay in business.

"It’s getting to the point where it’s cost prohibitive to keep farming," Sherbine said one night while sitting in his kitchen two weeks ago.

For years local government has devised ways to protect the rural character of the south from spreading north-county development.

A county-imposed halt on south-county subdivisions and an ordinance that dictates homes be clustered on agricultural land have been joined by a proposal to downzone the properties from one house per 20 acres to one house per 160 acres. Also on the table is a program involving the sale of ag land development density rights to builders in populated areas of the county that would ideally reimburse south-county landowners for not subdividing.

The question is, who is the county preserving the land for?

The problem is, Sherbine and his neighbors, the people who keep the land from turning into one big weed patch, say no one wants to buy their huge parcels of land under such conditions.

At a hearing in late April, about 10 members of the aging ag community came to the county courthouse in coveralls and boots to tell a citizens’ committee on ag land development just that.

The landowners contend no one is going to buy the vast open spaces to farm, and the notion that a millionaire will buy up land that isn’t on the prestigious Silver Creek to turn it into game preserves and horse ranches is hogwash, the owners say.

"There are no buyers whatsoever for farm ground," Sherbine said.

Virginia Reed, who lives on Baseline Road and whose land Sherbine leases, agrees.

In the eight years Reed has had her 120 acres for sale, she has had one offer of $200,000 for all the land and her home.

She’s asking $555,000 for just three parcels of land. Reed would like to continue living in her home.

"I wouldn’t even take that for the house," Reed said. "Farmland right now, you can’t give it away."

For the few remaining operators, like Sherbine, that don’t have other major sources of income and count on selling their land for retirement, farming in Blaine County just doesn’t pencil out anymore.

"I haven’t lost any money," Sherbine said. "But it’s getting closer and closer to the point where a guy is gonna lose some money."


"What’s going to happen to the land if we can’t afford to farm it anymore?" Bill Sherbine, third generation farmer


Bill Sherbine started helping his father on the family’s 300-acre Baseline Road farm when he was 10 years old. His grandfather began farming in the Blaine County in the 1880s.

Although Bill’s son is in the business, he isn’t sure what will be left for the next generation.

"I’ve got a grandson I’d like to see keep farming, but there’s no way he’s going to be able to afford to farm," Sherbine said.

Crop prices cannot keep up with expenses.

The elevation of the Bellevue Triangle makes the growing season relatively short. Add porous soil to the mix and farmers are left with two basic choices: grow brewing barley under contract with Coors or Anheuser Busch or grow alfalfa hay.

Many Blaine County growers with Anheuser Busch contracts were cut back this year. As a result, bales and bales of hay are rotting because there’s already too much of it on the market.

Another problem is the narrow profit margins. This price-cost history might help illustrate why local agriculture is on shaky ground.

Twenty years ago, Sherbine got $7 per hundred weight (100 pounds) for brewing barley. At that time a tractor cost about $30,000.

Today Sherbine gets $6.75 per hundred weight, and the same tractor costs $90,000.

Although the Sherbines farm 3,000 acres in the valley, they only own 600. They lease the remaining 2,400 from other landowners like Reed, and retiring farmer Harold Drussel.

Sherbine, who keeps a calculator in his shirt pocket, itemizes his cost per acre.

 Plowing $20

 Rolling and harrowing $8

 Planting $15

 Seeds $15

 Fertilizer $40

 Weed control $20

 Harvesting $25

 Electricity (sprinklers)$30

 Irrigation water $ 5

 Trucking $23

 Labor $25

 Rent $60

That totals $286 an acre to farm without counting depreciation on equipment, hail insurance or the cost of housing seven farm hands, according to Sherbine’s calculations.

A good crop of barley brings in $300 an acre.

"By the time you pay everything, there’s nothing left," Sherbine said.

With profit margins so thin in a business at the mercy of Mother Nature, it’s no wonder Sherbine buys used machinery and works day and night through the short, frantic growing season.

It’s hard to buy a new $170,000 combine when you make less than $14 an acre.

"Everything has sky-rocketed, but you have to buy it because you can’t operate without it," Sherbine said. "There is no bargain house for farm machinery."

Harold Drussel, whose pretty much out of the farming business and leases his land to Sherbine, remembers a time just after World War II when farm machinery in the valley consisted of two tractors.

He has his own example of how much farming has changed.

In 1969 Drussel bought his home and 140 acres for $54,000.

"It costs that much to operate in one year now, and that’s being damn conservative."

Drussel, who served on the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission for nine years, is frustrated by the demands of the county in the face of bad farm economics.

"Those people up there think we keep this green for them. If those people want to preserve this land, I wish they’d buy it and preserve it," Drussel said.

If the county was trying to preserve farmland for the farmers, that would be fine; Sherbine said he’d like to farm until the day he dies.

But if it’s for the tourists or newcomers who speed past on their way to Sun Valley resort, guys like Sherbine think preserving the land just to call it farming is a waste of time.

For 17 winters Sherbine has driven the sleighs at Sun Valley resort. When he asks visitors what they saw between the Wood River Valley and Boise, they have no clue, Sherbine said.

"It’s a shame. People are going to keep coming. I don’t want to see it. No one does. But I don’t think it’s up to me to keep it green for the people coming here," he said.

What worries Sherbine is that one day he won’t be able to pay rent on the 2,400 acres of other people’s land he works. There are few farmers waiting to take his place.

"What’s going to happen to the land if we can’t afford to farm it anymore?" Sherbine asked. "It’s not preserving agriculture. It’s people not wanting more people to come here. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s too many people here already."

The Bellevue Triangle is green for now, but with no demand for farmland that’s already heavily restricted by county mandates, the danger of suburban sprawl is minimal.

The danger is that no one will step in to buy all those green fields when the farmers go bust in Blaine County. Then it will be the Weed River Valley instead of the Wood River Valley.

NEXT: The real value of the land: fields vs. subdivisions.

 

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