Stephen Hartgen 01It wasn’t too many years ago, less than two decades or so, that southern Idaho’s agricultural economy mostly supplied domestic markets. Sure, there were some wheat sales to Asia and sheep and beans to Mexico, but for the most part, Idaho products went mostly inside America.

Today, it’s a different profile. Southern Idaho dairy products go to Asia. Barley goes to Mexico as brewery malt.  Pelletized alfalfa hay is shipped as livestock feed worldwide. Beef cattle go to Canada stockyards. Frozen potatoes go to outlets all over the world. You can buy an order of Idaho fries (often with fry sauce) from Iceland to Hong Kong. Idaho milk by-products, known as nutritionals, can found in dozens of health and industrial compounds worldwide. 

A look back just a few years shows the growth. Idaho’s agricultural sector has more than doubled from $4.4 billion in 2004 cash receipts to close to $9 billion in 2014. Nine of the 11 years set annual records. Processed foods and beverage sales totaled another $8 billion; combined, food production and processing counted for over 20 percent of the state’s economic output and more than 15 percent of state gross domestic product.

Canada ($245m) and Mexico ($178m) are the state’s leading agricultural export buyers at 49 percent; another almost 30 percent goes to Asia. 

This agricultural bounty is concentrated in southern Idaho. Four area counties are in the state’s top 10 agricultural producers (Cassia, Gooding, Jerome and Twin Falls), joined by two adjacent counties (Elmore and Owyhee). Each of the six has thousands of acres dedicated to agricultural production. Combined, the six of 44 state counties produce almost half of Idaho’s total agricultural value.

The diversity of Idaho’s agricultural sector may surprise some. Everyone knows potatoes, wheat and barley are big Idaho commodities, as are sugar beets, beans, alfalfa and sileage corn. Beef cattle and dairy have exploded in recent years. The state is also the nation’s No. 1 producer of commercial trout, most of it in southern Idaho; 6th in sheep and lambs; 8th in wool production; 13th in honey; 3rd in hops, 3rd in mint and 4th in onions. A good share of this output is concentrated locally as well. New crops, such as mint and industrial hemp, may add to this agricultural diversity in the future.

Looking at individual counties, the cash receipts for crops and livestock for several southern Idaho counties in 2014 were: Cassia, $1.57 billion; Gooding, $1.2 billion; Jerome, $758 million; Twin Falls, $699 million; and Minidoka, $401 million. 

Many factors help make southern Idaho an agriculture-friendly area. Weather patterns, including warm sunny days and cool evenings. Good soil conditions. Measured and controlled irrigation. Modern, labor-saving equipment and techniques hold down costs. Relative closeness of processing plants and direct shipping to markets, primarily in the west but also increasingly abroad. Relatively low land and labor costs when compared to elsewhere in the nation. Innovative thinking on the part of local owners, farmer entrepreneurs, who are willing to create practical solutions to ongoing issues of farm management and profitability.

Then there are the less-tangible factors: local communities with relatively low taxes, including an agricultural sales tax exemption on purchases, and common-sense state laws on such matters as property rights versus eminent domain, trespass and “Right to Farm;” large farm organizations like the Idaho Farm Bureau and various commodity groups; and not incidentally, a cultural setting in which quality agriculture is respected and admired in policy decisions and legislation.

Recent summaries of Idaho’s agricultural success can be found in many sources, from the new U.S. Census of Agriculture report (1917 data) to an excellent overview in the Idaho Farm Bureau’s quarterly summary (2018 data), from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Ag exports increased in 2018 from 2017, led by a 17 percent increase in the value of dairy products. Idaho ag exports in 2018 were almost $850m.

New trade agreements with Canada and Mexico are likely to spur further growth. A satisfactory resolution of trade issues with China would give Idaho agriculture yet another boost.

Since Idaho’s statehood, we’ve been a farming and other natural resources state, growing and shipping products to a growing, hungry country. Now, we’re doing the same for the world. It’s a sweet spot indeed for southern Idaho agriculture.

Sure, Idaho has many fine economic sectors, including health care, high tech, mining, timber and, of course, a robust recreation/tourism sector. But here in southern Idaho, agriculture is prime. And that’s not small potatoes.

Steven Hartgen is a retired five-term Republican state legislator from Twin Falls. He served on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and was chair of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..