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Panelists discuss agriculture and open space at the New West conference Friday in Missoula. From left to right, moderator Matthew Frank, Bob Quinn, Jim Hagenbarth, Jennifer Zung and Paul Hubbard.

Preserving Western Agriculture and Open Space

Perhaps no image is more emblematic of the changing West then an old barn surrounded by field of new houses. The irony in the image, of course, is that as residential development invades the West the agricultural land with its open space and wildlife habitat that draws people here is compromised.

“What will happen if you lose us?” asked southwestern Montana rancher Jim Hagenbarth. “The last crop we plant will be a subdivision. It will destroy all the habitat that we’ve worked to preserve.”

Hagenbarth spoke as part of a panel discussion on how to preserve working farms and ranches in face of mounting development pressure at NewWest.Net’s 3rd Annual Real Estate and Development Conference in the Northern Rockies in Missoula, Mont. on Friday.

The challenge, said Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition’s Paul Hubbard, is to find ways for farmers and ranchers to make a living on the land and, in a state where the average age of farmers is over 55, to help the next generation of farmers find land.

CFAC recently launched its Land Link Montana program which helps connect people seeking land to farm with landowners who want to lease or sell their land for agricultural use.

One possible boon for farmers is the recent rapid rise in consumer demand for local food. Local food reduces transportation cost and middlemen, which ensures farmers and ranchers receive more money for their products. And it provides consumers with fresher, healthier food, Hubbard claims.

“One of the things we’ve learned from working in these markets is that demand already outstrips supply,” Hubbard said. Which makes the preservation of agricultural lands all the more urgent. In Missoula County, less than two percent of all lands are classified as prime irrigated agricultural land, much of which has already been developed or is slated for development.

Near the development pressure, farmers “need to adapt to higher value crops,” said Big Sandy, Mont. organic farmer Bob Quinn. More farmers need to shift their focus from growing commodity crops for national and international markets using extensive federal subsidies to make a profit and instead grow diversified crops for local markets.

“There is more than one way to farm, despite what the chemical companies say,” said Quinn, who raises potatoes, onions, tomatoes, winter sqush, lentils, heritage varities of corn, wheat and barely, all without the use of irrigation.

Many developers now recognize the value of working farmland as a marketing tool for their residential developments and have begun to incorporate ways to protect farmland in their developments. Jennifer Zung, of Harmony Design & Engineering, a Teton County Idaho based-firm that specializes in environmentally-sensitive development. Her firm takes land that would be otherwise subdivided and looks for ways to maintain at least 50 percent as open space. Increasingly this open space is maintained as a farm, often raising products for sale in the local community. For example, at the Sleepy Hollow development in Felt, Idaho, they clustered 18 houses between a protected riparian area and 160 acres of working farmland. Her developers also realize what ranchers like Hagenbarth have long known — that some farming or ranching of a subdivision’s open space is essential for weed management.

Besides the now familiar conservation easement that pays a landowner to keep his or her land out of development, another similar and potent tool is the transfer of development rights, Zung said. Under this scenario a landowner can sell the development rights on his or her land to another landowner with land more suitable for development.

Hagenbarth, however, noted one shortcoming of tools like conservation easements. While they provide solvency for the current landowner, they are a one-time deal that provides little and restricts options for future owners, such as his children.

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  1. If these people are searching for a way to make good money farming, then they should pay attention to what is currently happening in North Dakota with Hemp. Canada has already proven that hemp cultivation is extremely profitable, good for the soil and necessary for rebuilding our manufacturing capabilities. The DEA is currently being sued for the right to grow industrial hemp, and given the American College of Physician’s demand earlier this year that marijuana be recognized as safe and effective medicine, they are already going to be forced to reschedule the plant anyway.

    What Popular Mechanics once touted as the next “Billion Dollar Crop” will be worth trillions now, and will finally give our nation a sustainable growth industry that is actually GOOD for the environment. Why does the media ignore this potential source of fuel, building materials, paper goods, clothing and healthy food? Why is our illegal drug trade never discussed in the same sentence as the terrorist organizations that it funds?

    If you are interested in REAL solutions for the problems we face, please visit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition at
    This is not just about overcrowded prisons or personal rights, first and foremost it is about protecting our environment and improving quality of life for all Americans and others affected by our government’s twisted and ineffective drug policy.

    Hemp cultivation should be at the center of our renewable energy industries, and our politicians must once again learn to respect our rights as citizens. If you are concerned about these issues, then please contact your local media and elected officials–if they are paying attention, then they should already be familiar with these ideas thanks to the efforts of people like Ron Paul, Barney Frank, Andrew Lahde and the growing number of organizations intent on educating the public about the potential for change (like LEAP.)

  2. This conference is spreading the same old myths–that agriculture preserve open space and wildlife habitat. First, ag is the BIGGEST THREAT to wildlife. Subdivisions occupy a fraction of the land converted to corn fields, wheat fields, hay fields, and so on. Cattle are the number one impact on riparian zones. The number one user of scarce western water is ag. And so on. The best thing that could happen for wildlife is to reduce the amount of land wasted on Ag.

    The second myth is that Ag can preserve open space. Keeping in mind that open space isn’t the same as good wildlife habitat–and a wheat field is probably as bad for wildlife as a Walmart parking lot, the fact that we have subdivisions at all is proof that Ag can’t prevent subdivisions. Ag is always found on marginal lands–lands that we have no other use for in our society. Once those lands have a higher value (I’m talking economic value) than they are converted to those uses.

    Hoping that Ag can preserve open space is the same thinking that opposes sex education in schools on the hope that teens will avoid sex.

    Time to get real. If you want to preserve open space, you have three options: buy it, easements, or zoning.

  3. It is really a simple concept about which there is no argument.

    You eat food. I grow food. When I can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many idiots there are in the world who believe food just appears. I grow it here in the US, I grow it there in other countries. And when I get regulated, price pushed and politically corrected out of existance, Soylent Green will be your reward.

    Are we ready to figure out solutions yet? Or just ready to bad mouth agriculture yet again? 3% feed you other 97%. Remember that.