Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Protecting a Southern Idaho gem

Land trust helps forge deal to preserve organic farm

Express Staff Writer

A conservation easement to protect the Barbara Farm will cover irrigated farmland and riparian areas. Sagebrush uplands on the farm are not included. Express photos by Jason Kauffman

Surrounded on nearly all sides by miles of dry sagebrush and lava rock-dotted uplands, the Barbara Farm is an isolated patch of green in an otherwise sun-baked expanse of classic Idaho high desert.

For the past two decades, the Shoshone-area farm has been a living and working laboratory for farm managers Fred and Judy Brossy. Well-known nationwide among practitioners of low-impact, organic farming practices, the Brossys have made a living out of working the Barbara Farm in a sustainable manner.

Earlier this month, the Brossy's sustainable efforts took a giant leap forward when they put pen to paper to finalize a deal long in the making to permanently preserve through a conservation easement the most productive and ecologically sensitive 396 acres of the Barbara Farm's roughly 1,800 total acres.

The four-way deal—forged between the Brossys, Barbara Farm owner Ernest Bryant, the Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service's Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program—was finalized several weeks ago.

The federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program allows farmers and ranchers to enter into agreements in which local land trusts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service each pay up to 50 percent of the cost to purchase the development rights of the acreage. By granting land trusts a permanent conservation easement on their property, the farmer or rancher forever waives the right to subdivide or otherwise develop their land in a way that would impair its future agricultural productivity.

With the development rights to the Barbara Farm removed, the true farmland production value of the farm and not its speculative development value has been ensured, Judy Brossy said. Based on the true farmland production value of the property, the Brossys were able to purchase the farm they have managed for two decades.

"It's actually the true value of what the land can produce," Brossy said.

Lands protected under the deal are split between a 297-acre parcel of productive irrigated farmland and a meandering two-mile-long, 99-acre stretch of intact riparian habitat along the Little Wood River. The lands were selected primarily because of their potential desirability for future subdivision.

The roughly 1,400 acres of the farm not protected under the deal are primarily sagebrush and lava rock-dotted uplands, which makes them less desirable for development.

"This was the only way to allow it to be preserved and to make it more of a reasonable acquisition for us," Brossy said.

With the recent arrival of rapid growth in the Shoshone area, the Brossys realized they would have to act quickly to protect the Barbara Farm from becoming just another subdivision.

"This is the only side of Shoshone that hasn't seen development," Brossy said.

Farming the Barbara Farm in an organic manner isn't just an ethical choice for the Brossys, it's also a matter of economic survival, Brossy said.

"We feel that's the only way to farm," she said. "In a way that's the thing that makes the farm viable."

By rotating numerous crop types across the Barbara Farm's 297 irrigated acres, the Brossys are better prepared to weather the disasters and pitfalls all farmers face, Brossy said. Farming organically adds to the farm's economic sustainability, she said.

The Barbara Farm has been a certified organic farm since 1996. The farm produces organic beans, potatoes, corn, wheat and various seed crops.

"It really is the diversity that makes the farm go," Brossy said.

Over the years, the Barbara Farm has also been used as a teaching tool for more than 200 people who have attended programs and tours that educate community members about challenges facing Southern Idaho farmers.

With the conservation easement in place, the Barbara Farm will be able to preserve its educational capacity well into the future, Brossy said.

"We're really excited to be able to keep the farm," she said. "And to know it will always be a farm."

The Barbara Farm project is unique for the Wood River Land Trust, said the organization's program and membership coordinator, Heather Kimmel.

"It's particularly nice for us to be working with a working farm," Kimmel said. "Such properties add to the rural character of the regions in which they're found."

"It's something we want to see preserved," she said.

Due to scant funds, land trusts must focus their priorities on high-value lands most vulnerable to development, she said.

"Farms in the area (Lincoln County) are increasingly being converted to residential developments," Kimmel said. "Our motivation is to save the farmland."

Properties selected to participate in the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program must have soils that are considered of prime, unique, or statewide importance, said Bob Bartholomew, the NRCS's assistant state conservationist in Boise.

"They have to have these high-value soils," he said. "That's the whole basis of the FRPP program."

Due to its close proximity to the high-growth Wood River Valley, the Barbara Farm was of particular interest to the Idaho office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Boise, Bartholomew said.

"This is what the program is all about," he said. "They (the Brossys) wanted to protect a rather unique piece of property."

Including the Barbara Farm, seven farms or ranches have been or are in the process of being protected in Idaho, Bartholomew said. Lands protected under the program are spread throughout Fremont, Bonneville, Teton and Lincoln counties, he said.

Such deals ensure the best farmland in those areas stay in agriculture, Bartholomew said.

"The Brossys were just thrilled," he said. "It allowed a farmer to keep farming."

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