I am grateful for smart people. After listening to a series of presentations for the Idaho Ag Outlook Seminar, I am in awe.
First and foremost, I am filled with wonder over how the agricultural engine operates. A cornucopia of food is available to me for a scant few dollars. Me and others have the liberty to pursue countless vocational and recreational interests with scarcely a thought for life-giving sustenance. Secondly, I appreciate the people that comprehend the complexities of our food production economy and can share a bit of how it operates.
The Idaho agriculture outlook is great, and that’s great for all Idahoans. A bit of history can put things in perspective. Dr. Garth Taylor, University of Idaho Extension Specialist in Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, summed it up succinctly, “Food is cheaper now than it ever has been in the history of the United States.” The Idaho agriculture industry is growing faster than the general Idaho economy, and its being done with ever fewer acres. Land is finite and we don’t grow by creating more farmable acres. We grow by becoming more efficient.
Across all Idaho agriculture sectors we are increasing efficiency. Idaho (and U.S.) milk per cow is more than double the world average. Idaho sugar beet farmers produced 23.1 tons/ac in 1982 and 40.5 tons/ac in 2020. Sugar content has also increased from 3-4 tons/acre to 8-9 tons/acre over that same period. Not only are we producing more tons but it is of better quality. An acre of potatoes in 1964 produced 164 sacks. That same acre in 2019 produced 425 sacks. Idaho wheat yield has increased by 385% in the last 100 years. Idaho went from 19.9 bu/ac in 1920 to 96.6 bu/ac in 2020. While Idaho harvested similar acres to 1920, we produced five times more wheat.
Even more astounding, our increased production is being accomplished with less water. Ag water use from 1995 to 2010 dropped 8.3%. Water use per acre is decreasing while production is improving. As a side note, even non-agricultural use of water in Idaho deserves applause. Industrial and residential water demand projections for the Boise area in the 1970’s and 80’s showed near exponential increase in demand. In reality, water use has stayed roughly stable despite a huge increase in population. If that doesn’t make you smile, you’d better check your pulse. Idaho net farm income rose from 42.7 billion in 2019 to over $3 billion in 2020. That’s higher than ever, even when you exclude the anomaly of COVID-19 government payments.
“We the People” have met the challenge. We have not been constrained by the available land or water. We continue to find new and better ways to provide our food. Challenges are indisputably ahead but Idaho agriculture will surely find a way.