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News >  Idaho

Farms vanishing fast in Meridian: ‘Growth is pushing us out’

UPDATED: Sat., July 21, 2018

In this undated photo, Mike Lindley works at his dairy farm in Meridian, Idaho. (Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman)
In this undated photo, Mike Lindley works at his dairy farm in Meridian, Idaho. (Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman)
By John Sowell Idaho Statesman

BOISE – For more than two decades, Gerald Flower’s family operated a dairy farm in rural Meridian. The farm on Ustick Road, just west of McDermott Road, lies at the western edge of Ada County.

Flower’s father bought the farm around 1966, after moving from California, where the family also operated a dairy farm. In Meridian, the family milked about 200 cows until 1987. Flower later raised cattle on the property until he semi-retired in about 2000 and began leasing his property to other farmers.

Over the years, as Meridian grew, developers interested in Flower’s 95 acres of land came calling. The property, within eyeshot of the Lactalis American Group cheese factory in Nampa and Interstate 84, could have been prime land for a housing development for people who might want a short commute to jobs in Nampa, Meridian or Boise.

Early last year, Flower and his wife, Phyllis, instead sold 90 acres of their land – they retained about 5 acres, where they have rental houses – to the West Ada School District for $2.5 million. The property, which was appraised at $2.7 million, with the Flowers donating the other $200,000 back to the school district, was chosen for a new $60 million high school that the district hopes to open in fall 2020.

Though they get up before dawn and often work until sunset, most farmers love their lifestyle and take pride in bringing their crops, milk and animals to consumers’ dinner tables. But selling their land for development can help achieve a more-comfortable retirement. Farmers who reside in populated areas and who who can sell their land for development are financially luckier than those far from the urban fringe.

“Anything in Meridian that’s a farm right now is not selling as a farm,” said Shawn Endicott, an associate broker with Silvercreek Realty Group in Meridian.

Four dairy farms left

Flower is one of the lucky ones.

Ustick Road alongside the farm used to be a quiet country road but is now a busy thoroughfare. He and his wife moved several years ago to a home three and a half miles farther west on Ustick. There are times in the evening, as people get off work, that it takes 20 to 30 minutes to drive the short distance between the two.

“I’d hate to be a farmer now with all of the traffic,” he said.

Meridian began as an agricultural settlement. The first creamery was established in 1897, six years before Meridian incorporated as a town.

Dozens of small, family-operated dairies once dotted the Meridian landscape. It wasn’t long before Meridian became known as the dairy center of Idaho. That heritage is reflected in the annual Dairy Days celebration, which will celebrate its 90th year next June. Today only four dairies remain.

Since 1990, when Meridian’s population was 9,596, the city has grown elevenfold. Earlier this year, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho said Meridian’s population had risen to 106,410. It’s Idaho’s second-largest city, behind Boise.

‘Growth … is pushing us out’

The growth has come through new housing developments and businesses. That has increased pressure on owners of open land and farmland. Since 2000, 11,091 acres of farmland in Meridian and its surrounding impact zone have been converted for other uses, according to Carl Miller, a senior planner with COMPASS, the Treasure Valley’s regional planning agency.

“The growth of Meridian is pushing us out,” said Randy Lindley, a second-generation dairy farmer who leased Flower’s dairy operation for about 13 years and now pays the school district. “It’s affecting us, but we’re not being negative.”

Meridian land can go for as much as $150,000 an acre. In Parma, where production of hops and grapes has exploded, farmland sells for between $7,500 and $11,000 an acre, Endicott said. She recently sold a farm between Kuna and Melba for about $9,000 an acre.

Lindley, who is assisted by his son, Mike, and five other workers, have until March before they must leave the property. They’ve looked for another spot to relocate their dairy, but so far haven’t found anything suitable. They’ve widened their search to outside the Treasure Valley and outside Idaho.

He said he tried to buy the land he’s on from Flower, but the price was too high.

“It’s hard to find a place for a dairy like this,” said Lindley, who milks and raises about 700 head of Holstein cows. Milking takes place twice a day, every day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

This is the second time Lindley, who has served on the board of directors for the Northwest Dairy Association and the Darigold cooperative, has been displaced. He grew up seven miles farther east, where the Castlebury subdivision was developed near Chinden and Locust Grove roads. As a teenager, he’d deliver cans of milk to a processing plant on his way to Meridian High School, where he graduated in 1973.

He still lives at the family home but that dairy went away when the subdivision was built.

“If we had moved years ago, we probably would have been better off,” Lindley said. “But I don’t dwell on it.”

Flower was a good landlord, and the school district has been transparent in keeping him informed of its plans as it gets ready to construct the new high school, the district’s seventh.

“Certainly, suburban growth has either displaced those farms’ or the farmers have just seen the value in their land and have decided that was a good option for them,” said Cindy Miller, a vice president with Dairy West, a Meridian-based organization that promotes Idaho’s family-run dairy operations.

Ground zero for Idaho’s dairy industry has moved to Twin Falls. The Magic Valley has 296 dairy farms, three times the 94 found in the Treasure Valley and nearly three times the 106 in Eastern Idaho. The Magic Valley has 72 percent of the state’s dairy cows and 13 of Idaho’s 19 processors, including Glanbia Foods, which processes 12 million pounds of milk per day.

Idaho ranks fourth among the states in dairy production, behind California, Wisconsin and New York.

Richard Durrant, 57, owner of the Big D Ranch, which straddles Meridian and Kuna on Ten Mile Road south of I-84, has seen both communities grow tremendously during his lifetime. His family’s 1,500-acre farm, which includes 200 acres of owned land and other leased acreage, was once surrounded by other farms. Now, a number of subdivisions border it too.

Durrant’s family, which came to the area in 1946, hasn’t been immune to the growth. His family sold some ground where the city of Kuna built a sewer treatment plant a few years ago, and another side of his family sold the ground for a new Kuna high school at the northwest corner of Columbia and Linder Roads for $1.5 million.

“You know change is happening, but it’s been sad to see this land developed,” said Durrant, whose family once sold eggs and ran a dairy farm but today grows corn, wheat, mint, dry beans and other crops.

Durrant, president of the Ada County chapter of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said he gets three or four phone calls a week from people interested in buying him out. He said he isn’t interested in selling his farm, but he understands why others might be tempted to accept a big payday. Durrant said he couldn’t afford to pay the going prices for land in Meridian or Kuna if he wanted to expand his farm.

“I can’t fault them for selling to the highest bidder and getting some retirement funds,” he said.

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