This Land is... Whose Land? 

How Edible Idaho changed the conversation about how we view the Treasure Valley

It is, quite likely, Idaho's most provocative compendium of long-form journalism this year. And that buzzworthy reporting, chronicling what may be the greatest ideological fissure of our time, can be found not in so-called "legacy" media but in the summer issue of Edible Idaho, a quarterly publication that has, in the past, lingered on mouth watering food stories.

But earlier this year, as Edible Idaho Managing Editor Guy Hand was dining at Bittercreek in downtown Boise, a restaurant employee approached Hand, waving a copy of another publication.

"You better look at this," said the restaurant employee.

click to enlarge hunter-homes-ad.jpg

"This" was a back page advertisement in the most recent issue of Greenbelt Magazine, a photo-heavy Treasure Valley lifestyle publication often stacked on newsracks alongside Edible Idaho.

"What I saw on that page raised the hairs on the back of my neck," said Hand.

The glossy ad touted "farm-to-table" living at the soon-to-be-constructed Dry Creek Ranch, a proposed subdivision minutes from Boise city limits. The ad featured a child nuzzling up to a horse, and two young adults strolling through farmland and acres of lush, green fields in front of the Boise Foothills. Nowhere in the ad were there details on the fact that developer Boise Hunter Homes had designs to put 1,800 rooftops across those same fields.

"At first blush, I thought it was just a bit of brainwashing, a developer hitching its wagon to the local food movement. I was appalled," said Hand. "But the more I talked to other people about it, the more I knew we had a real opportunity to do something different. So, Scott and I began sharing a Google docs sheet of possible stories."

That would be Scott Ki, editor of Edible Idaho.

"It didn't take long after he gathered a strong cadre of local journalists for the story pitches to start coming in," said Ki.

click to enlarge (Left to right) Scott Ki, Guy Hand, Dan Meyer and Carissa Wolf - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • (Left to right) Scott Ki, Guy Hand, Dan Meyer and Carissa Wolf

Ultimately, those story pitches were curated down to a choice few, examining everything from an ever-increasing risk to the region's rich soil, to insight into urban farming and something that Edible Idaho called "The great Treasure Valley tradeoff" of developers gobbling up more farmland.

Just so there would be no confusion when a reader picked up the summer edition of the magazine, its cover was an aerial photo of dozens of new homes edging closer and closer to farmland, and prominently stamped across Edible Idaho's cover were the words: The Land Loss Issue. In an editor's note, dubbed "Grist for the Mill" near the front of the magazine, Hand set the pace. Here's an excerpt:

"It's summer, and we're the first to admit that wrestling with the issue of ag land loss is less appetizing than, say, publishing a magazine full of glistening grilling recipes. But with Idaho farmland at risk, isn't it high time we asked ourselves how many more summers we'll have of ultra-fresh corn and meat raised by ranchers we trust? After all, there's no local food without local farmland."


click to enlarge GUY HAND
  • Guy Hand

Hand and Ki reached out to award-winning journalist, Boise State University educator and Co-founder of the Idaho Media Initiative Carissa Wolf, who knew in a heartbeat that she wanted in on The Land Loss Issue.

"It absolutely had to be an entire issue. Sometimes, things are to big for just one or two articles. I was excited," she said. "The way I approached the stories that I wrote is this: The land is an actual character. Much like an interviewee is a source to any journalist, I started thinking of land as a source of mine. We go to sources for information all the time; well, the land tells us who we are. I needed to know who those first people were that put their hands in our soil. I knew that if I went back, it could help illuminate why this is so important today."

In her story "SOS: Save Our Soil," Wolf visited Fiddler's Green Farm in the Dry Creek Valley. Here's an excerpt:

"Black, rich soil spills from the mouth of the backhoe, revealing foot upon foot of dark strata teeming with the spoils of organic life and life-sustaining potential. [University of Idaho professor of soil and water systems Paul] MacDaniel sees an interplay of ecological forces that unites geology, climate studies, biology and hydrology into one big, geekable backhoe scoop."

Wolf grew up in the Treasure Valley, but she said she was continuously surprised at how much there was to learn about the valley's land.

"Behind the foothills, there's this beautiful agrarian valley, like out of a postcard that many of us haven't visited," said Wolf. "It's some of the best soil that you could possibly find to farm. The land was so fertile for the early farmers in our region that they were able to do dry farming. That should tell you a lot right there."

From there, Wolf said it was important to frame the current, sometimes volatile, conversation about growth in and around Boise.

"If you look at the City of Boise as a character, it's in its adolescence. And, like a lot of adolescents, it's trying to figure out what it wants to do and what it wants to look like when it's grown up. It's up to us to figure out what that is," she said. "Thirty years ago, we'd hear people complain about growth and how farmland was starting to disappear. That was the end of the discussion. But now, there's a real difference: activism and a realization that if we want to have a say in our future, we're going to have to be a voice for that land."

Perhaps the most tangible example of that modern-day activism has been the Save Dry Creek initiative, which spent the better part of this year trying to secure enough signatures to get on the November general election ballot. Its supporters had hoped to put the issue of Hunter Homes' plans for the 1,800-home development in Dry Creek before voters, but in late July, organizers conceded that their signature-gathering had fallen short. Meanwhile, Hunter Homes indicated it's moving closer to laying some of the first foundations of the Dry Creek Ranch project in the next two months.

Standing on the Edge

Dan Meyer owns Morning Owl Farm in east Boise, making him a perfect interviewee in any other edition of Edible Idaho. But things took a bit of a turn when Meyer read an op-ed piece in the Idaho Statesman penned by Travis Hunter, co-owner of Boise Hunter Homes.

click to enlarge GUY HAND
  • Guy Hand

"He was writing about how their development was going to bring that farm-to-table aspect to it. I cheekily commented on it," said Meyer. "I asked, 'How much land will it be devoting for the farm? What are you going to pay the farmer?' The next day, I got a call from him. We actually had a half-decent conversation. They actually offered me a job. Clearly, they hadn't really done much farming. I said, 'No. I've got my own farm going.' I tried to reach out again to further the discussion. It was kind of cold after that."

Further conversation with Hunter Homes may have gone cold, but Meyer was warming up to another idea, something that he had never considered before.

"I called Guy Hand after that last conversation with Hunter. But I had never had any of my writing published before,.but then this happened," said Meyer, who accepted Hand's offer to write a first-person piece for The Land Loss Issue. "I just went for it. And the more I thought of it, the more I thought of a sailing metaphor."

Indeed, in his first-person essay, "Harnessing the Wind of Development," Meyer asked, "Can developers, farmers and concerned citizens sail together?" Here's an excerpt:

"There's a slurry of emotions that comes with any prospective development so close to one's location and heart, and so altering of the landscape and culture. How I feel about it morphs by the minute with the changing hues of the sunrise, but I know the direction the wind blows. The path towards growth that reflects a healthier vision of the future for our land, for our communities and for ourselves will come from harnessing that power rather than fighting headlong against it."

Greener Pastures

We would be remiss if we didn't mention Boise Weekly Senior Staff Writer Harrison Berry's contribution to The Land Loss Issue. In his piece, "The Great Treasure Valley Tradeoff," Berry keeps a close watch on Treasure Valley farmland "gobbled up" by a growing number of developers. The forecast isn't pretty. As Berry writes, "By the year 2100, the Treasure Valley could be virtually unrecognizable to the people who live there today."

To be sure, Edible Idaho's summer edition has tongues wagging across the Treasure Valley. That said, Edible Idaho isn't a legacy media behemoth that doesn't have to worry where its next advertising dollar comes from. Simply put, these are very tenuous times for modest media organizations that struggle to keep the lights on to be weighing in on such polarizing issues.

"Can I tell you something? This issue has been terrifying on so many levels. But it has really been invigorating too," said Hand. "This issue is about so much more than Dry Creek. It's about who we are and where we're going. All these people have hopscotched across the country to escape development and that's why they've come to Idaho. But it's a bit of an illusion if you keep moving to supposedly solve that problem. I think we're one of the last frontiers, one of the last places left where there are greener pastures."


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