Grant-funded research looks into loss of farmland in the Treasure Valley

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After writing an 18-page application proposal, Jodi Brandt and her team were awarded a $200,000 two-year grant-funded study by the United States Department of Agriculture to observe the loss of farmland, the spread of urbanization and the effects it has on the Treasure Valley. 

“I anticipate that we’ll be working on this issue for several years because the urban growth is not going to go away in the Boise area so we are going to keep working on this issue about how to protect farmland,” Brandt, assistant professor in Human-Environment Systems in the College of Innovation and Design, said.

The team working on the grant-funded project is interdisciplinary, and having a well-rounded team aids in analyzing every aspect of city growth and the effects on the environment. Faculty members from the biology department, rural sociology and other science fields work with a Ph.D. student to investigate and conduct research. 

Sarah Halperin, a first-year doctoral student in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program, was chosen by Brandt to help lead the study. The main purpose of the study  focuses on the loss of farmland and creating materials with information that is targeted and useful.

“Depending on the data set, you might get a wide range of answers on how accurate those are. Some are done by census data, others are done remotely from satellites that are collecting information,” Halperin said. “But those numbers can vary. We’re still working on how to get the best answers we can get. It’s not going to be perfect but some numbers have suggested that between 1997 and 2017, Ada County has lost 10,000 acres of agricultural lands.”

One of the main focuses of the study is projections from past and future years for the amount of farmland lost. A second component of the research is to understand the policy mechanisms available for farmland preservation and what might be more suited for the Treasure Valley. 

By talking with local farmers, Brandt and Halperin hope to better understand the effects of such rapid growth from those that deal with the changes on a day-to-day basis. As the city of Boise continues to increase in population, the 10,000 acres previously lost continues to grow as well.

“We’re both excited [about the project]and excited that people are interested and it’s just the beginning right now,” Halperin said. “So hopefully we’ll get out there and get to visit some stakeholders and farmers and really see what’s going to happen on the ground to better inform our research.” 

Investigative researcher and associate professor in the biology department, Mary-Anne de Graaff, is investigating the cycle of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to Graaff, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and plants combined does not equal the amount of carbon in the soil, and the amount of carbon in the soil directly affects how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.

The research Graaff is conducting particularly examines the benefits and consequences of soil being locked into place by urbanization in the Treasure Valley.

“There’s people that say, ‘By 2050, we expect there to be this much CO2 into the atmosphere, and it’s going to be this much water.’ There is a whole lot of these projections for the future, so the way people create those is essentially by creating scenarios,” Graaff said.

The scenarios created can then estimate the impact of global warming by a certain year. Graaff considers the grant a seed that will start looking into the impact of a growing urban life will have on an environment.

“I think our cultural lands are a vital ecosystem. People rely on it for their livelihoods and it’s a big part of the culture of Idaho. It’s something that’s worth protecting for all those reasons,” Halperin said. 

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