Canyon County

Farms are disappearing across Idaho. This Melba family kept theirs alive for 100 years.

Claude R. Swarthout had been hoping for good news about the future of his family legacy for a while.

He began helping his son, Jon Swarthout, compile all the information he had on their Melba family farm, 4-S Ranches, this summer. Claude’s grandparents, Nell and Claude W., were Colorado transplants who originally came to Idaho in 1907 to haul ore for the Stibnite gold mines in the Central Idaho mountains.

They eventually moved to the Melba Valley to establish a homestead in 1912, back when neighbors were sparse, and coyotes and deer still ran across the fertile farmland that bordered the Snake River. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, the couple claimed 40 acres and started a dairy, began growing hay, corn, carrot seed and potatoes, and raised a family. They officially received the deed to the land in August 1919.

“It’s always been kind of a special place for us,” Jon said.

Claude and Jon believed 4-S Ranches qualified as an Idaho Century Ranch. The award from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture and the Idaho State Historical Society recognizes families who have operated the same farm or ranch — on at least 40 acres of the original plot of land — for at least 100 years.

The Swarthout family no longer owns a dairy or raises milk cows, but Claude slowly expanded the farm that would eventually become 4-S Ranches. Today, three generations of Swarthouts pitch in to run the farm, growing corn, hay, hybrid seed corn, grain seed beans, winter wheat and peas on more than 240 acres. They also raise Limousin cattle, a breed of highly muscled beef cattle.

It wasn’t always easy to hold on to the family farm, especially as the Treasure Valley grew and development threatened the Snake River Valley’s farming roots. But on his 85th birthday, Claude’s children, grandchildren and wife, Linda, gathered on a grassy knoll to surprise him with the good news.

Claude fought back tears as the deputy director of the state agriculture department and a trustee from the Idaho Historical Society presented him with a large red plaque and signed certificate from Idaho Gov. Brad Little. It was official — 4-S Ranches was an Idaho Century Ranch.

“That’s pretty incredible,” he said, holding the sign. They began discussing where they could place the sign so everyone who passed by could see it.

“Agriculture is a tough industry to be in,” said Brian Oakey, deputy director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “I don’t know if it’s any easier now than it was 100 years ago, but to have a family that keeps their roots in agriculture, I think needs to be recognized.”

100 years of Idaho farm history

Idaho’s department of agriculture has partnered with the Idaho State Historical Society since 1990 to select and award the “Century” designation to qualified farms and ranches. There’s more than 450 Century Farms and Ranches across Idaho, ranging from fruit trees and orchards in Filer to a wheat farm in Bancroft. Ten more joined their ranks this summer.

“1919 was a popular year for homesteading farms and ranches,” Oakey told the Swarthout family when he presented the award. “We’ve been busy this year.”

Many century-old Idaho farms and ranches were established under the 1862 Homestead Act, which allowed anyone to claim a swath of federal land. About 60,000 Idahoans established farms and ranches under the law. While it was easy and free to claim the land, keeping those farms and ranches running — and keeping them in the family — was another thing entirely.

“It recognizes the longevity of a way of life,” Oakey said. “Especially in this area, where there is so much pressure for development and urbanization, there’s still families that keep that sentimentality to where they come from and their roots.”

Claude said he thinks “a love of the ground” passed down through generations is what kept 4-S Ranches together. Several members of each generation of the Swarthout family worked jobs off the farm, but they always came back. Even Claude left Melba to go to Boise Junior College and later the University of Idaho to become an engineer, working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in North Idaho and Oregon before he was drawn back to the ranch.

Parts of the land are farmed by sharecroppers, but now his daughter, Jill, and grandsons Nick and Danny Talbot live in Melba and help on the farm.

“Their roots are just as deep as ours,” Claude said. “Even though they pursue other professions, they still have a soft spot for the farm.”

Often kids who grow up in farming go to college and never return to agriculture. Oakey said the state agriculture department hopes initiatives such as the Century Farm and Ranch program will provide at least a small incentive for those upcoming generations to return to the family farm.

“When you take any property out of agriculture, you’re not going back,” Oakey said. “It’s permanent, for sure … To watch these farms disappear, you kind of wonder what we’re passing down to the next generation.”

To get a Century Farm and Ranch application for your family, call 208-514-2326 or write to the Idaho State Historical Society at 2205 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise ID 83712. You can also download the Century Farm and Ranch application online.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

We're diving deep into Idaho agriculture

Reporter Nicole Foy is helping the Idaho Statesman expand coverage of agriculture, farming and food across Idaho. Agriculture and food production has long been an important part of Idaho’s economy, with dairies, international agribusinesses and food processors among the state’s top employers. Many Idahoans have close ties to agriculture, even as houses continue to replace farmland, especially in Boise and throughout the Treasure Valley.

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.
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