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“Maybe we’ll realize the importance [of land] when food gets to be as expensive as gas.  You can park your car, but you can’t park your appetite.”

-Steve Percy
Farm and Food Voices
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Idaho Rancher Steve Percy Works to Restore the Land

Steve Percy, a fourth-generation rancher, has experienced first-hand the urban pressure on agriculture. Seventeen years ago, as development created more crowding, he gave up ranching in southern California and moved to Steve PercyIdaho. Now, his ranching practices are helping to restore land east of Boise.

“When we bought this place, it had been through four or five owners in ten years,” he says. “The previous owners tried to farm it, but there’s only six inches of soil above the bedrock. They wanted to make something out of it that wasn’t meant to be.”

Percy does no cropping, concentrating instead on managing his 350 cow-calf pairs in an intensive grazing approach, which has paid off on multiple fronts. His pastures—shallow-rooted weeds and tumbleweed 17 years ago—are recovering. “We started seeing bulbous bluegrass, native squirreltail and Idaho fescue,” he explains. “Each year, you see a few more plants come back.”

Percy has installed fences to manage cattle movement and prevent overgrazing.  As a result, he can monitor the herd more closely, and his cattle don’t mingle with others. “In the creek bottoms, they stay 10 days to two weeks. You watch the pasture and when you see a certain level of use, you move them. We calve in one field and then move the cows. We keep doing that, so we have very little sickness.”

Type of Operation:
Intensive-grazing cow and calf ranch

Land in Agriculture:
5,000 acres owned; 22,500 acres in leases and grazing permits

Greatest Challenge:
Urban sprawl paving over good farmland near Boise

Program Participation:
USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Security Program (CSP)

Unmet Need:
Easier processes for farmers and ranchers to directly apply improved practices when participating in federal programs

Percy’s management practices also yield economic benefits: as his pasture has improved, the cattle have required less in feed.

Percy praises USDA’s EQIP and CSP programs for rewarding smaller practices that make a difference. Working with EQIP matching funds, he relocated a corral so that a stream no long runs through it. “People used to build the corrals right in the creek to water the livestock. We fenced the corral off from the creek and put in a water trough and a berm to control runoff. Our creek went from two inches deep to having good depth and water.”

As much as he values the federal programs, Percy sees room for improvement. For example, he suggests having interns who understand agriculture visit people on their operations and talk over what they could do with CSP. “[USDA] gives you this program, and you go home and try to fit your operation into it. It would be better if they could look at the operation and say, ‘Here, we’ll tailor the program to you if you do these things.’

“Lots of people have gotten burned by government programs in the past. They need to show people simple things that they can do easily to make a difference. For instance, maybe if you recycle your oil you get $100 a year for five years.”

Still, Percy thinks CSP is a real boon: “When you look at how you’ll cover property taxes and fuel bills and the rest, having CSP kind of relaxes you to concentrate on doing a better job at ranching.”

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American Farmland Trust