Agricultural Issues

Many of the folks retiring in the Intermountain West come here with the dream of having their own Gentleman's Farm or Ranch. They have many reasons, among them: maintaining a more desirable tax classification (agricultural versus residential), a satisfying hobby, the social activities involved, livestock can be used as collateral for loans, and taxable income may be reduced by charging off qualified expenses (just be careful of the IRS definitions of "farm" and "hobby"). The biggest drawbacks to a small scale project involve the lack of economies of scale: because you don't buy in bulk, you pay more. On top of that, the smaller your farm, the easier it is for one hailstorm, one torrential downpour, or one early or late snowfall to wipe you out.

Killing frosts can come as early as September 10 and as late as May 15. It varies every year. The growing season may be from 90 to 180 days, depending on how far north you are and the elevation of the fields. Precipitation may average 10-18 inches annually and generally increases further north and with elevation.

Soils in the foothills and mountains vary greatly but the majority are shallow with deposits of gravel and low fertility. Exceptions occur in the valleys of the area where more fertile loams can go down for tens of feet. This region is well suited for the growing of most cool season crops, such as potatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, etc. With a bit of extra care, adaptive varieties of tomatoes, squash and corn do well, too. As for orchard trees: apple, plum and peach will produce, but not every year. All of this changes, of course, with elevation.

Many of the growing soils of this area are derived from Pierre Shale parent material. What this means is that Pierre Shale material breaks down into expansive soil contaning salts and clays. Expansive soil can severely damage building foundations. The salts and clays can damage crops, limit the type of crops that will grow and can adversely influence crop yields. Our soils tend to be basic but they get more acidic as you approach the mountains. Because we are in a semi-arid climate, we don't have a lot of vegetation. This makes for a shortage of organic matter, which also influences crop yields and biological activity in the soil. Most of our soils are geologically very young. Older soils tend to be more fertile and have a thicker layer of topsoil.

If you intend to engage in kind of agriculture here, you'll want to learn everything you can about your soil. It's environmentally sane and can even save you money. Every County Extension Agent has access to state-compiled soil surveys for each specific area. What's included in a soil survey:

  • Aerial photography
  • Weather data
  • Crops being produced on what soils
  • Amount and kind of native vegetation
  • Engineering properties:
    1. Water table
    2. Depth to Bedrock
    3. Salinity
    4. Shrink/Swell
    5. Potential
    6. Flooding Hazard
  • Soil Suitability and limitations for:
    1. Homes
    2. Septic tanks
    3. Wildlife Habitat
    4. Topsoil

Soil tests can be obtained through your local County Extension Agent, and they can assist with interpreting your test results. logo
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