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By Joel Shoemaker

Volume 12, Number 09, June 1898, Page 246 - 249

The story of irrigation and the possibilities of soil culture in Idaho seem like a fairy tale, and the truthful writer must always expect many doubtful readers, who might imagine him a land agent, picturing paper castles in the desert. This little "Gem of the Mountains" possesses some most remarkable agricultural characteristics visible to the homeseeker, tourist and investor. It contains 84,690 square miles of area, inside of which there are 600,000 acres covered by numerous crystal mountain lakes. The Snake river is fully 1.000 miles in length, within and along the borders of the State, and is navigable for probably 200 miles. This, with the Boise, Payette, Weiser, Kootenai, Clark Pork, Clearwater, St. Joseph and other rivers and streams constitute the natural water supply from the perpetual reservoirs of the mountains.

In 1890 the census enumerators returned 6,654 farms in the 18 county divisions, with 217,005 acres under cultivation. The general land office reports for June 30. 1895, show that 206,519 acres had been taken as original homestead entries; the railroad selections amounted to 52,042 acres; and the total disposed of under homestead acts, timber culture acts, located with agricultural college scrip and military bounty warrants, and selected by the state and railroads amounted to 339,328 acres. Some of the best informed residents think the area irrigated at present will reach at least 500,000 acres. The official figures give Idaho a population of 84,385 of which all but 201 are white citizens. The number of farmers increases every year by immigration from the western states and all sections of the east where irrigation is studied by those seeking new homes. It is estimated by authorities competent to approximate the area, that the state contains 16,000,000 acres of agricultural lands in the several valleys, at an altitude of less than 5,000 feet above sea level.

Many of the irrigation canals of Idaho are farmers' co-operative concerns constructed without bonding or other indebtedness, and incorporated under the general state laws. The average first cost of water rights in these canals has been in the past about $4.75 and the expense of cleaning the land preparatory to irrigation $10 an acre. A farm then with perpetual water right and ready for cultivation would be about $15 an acre outlay for a good "place to make a place" in this state. There are numerous small ditches and many large canals, costing more or less than this amount, and the value of the land after reclamation is proportionate to the expense. The eastern counties, largely settled by Mormons from Utah, partake much of the methods peculiar to those people, and canals are constructed by a union of labor without any great amount of money. Western and southern counties have larger and more strictly corporation investments but the average cost to the farmer is practically the same, location and proximity to market considered.

Southern Idaho is one of the best fruit growing sections of the northwest. Several prizes awarded at the World's Fair and other places for general exhibits, prove the superiority of apples, prunes and apricots, while other fruits of a temperate climate are equally as good. In the vicinity of Boise fruit growers report an average of 250 pounds of prunes and plums, 500 pounds of apples, 300 pounds of peaches and pears per tree after the bearing season begins, which varies from three to six years from planting, according to variety. In some instances these yields are doubled. One man who is not alone by any means, says he marketed 400 pounds of early peaches from one tree, at six cents a pound or 824 in cash as the product from that tree, with others correspondingly valuable. Again, a man picked the fruit of an ordinary apple tree, ground the apples into cider, 18 pounds making one gallon, which was sold at 50 cents a gallon, giving 838 as the actual product of the tree, after expenses had been deducted. The entire Snake River valley in which are several towns, as Nampa, Weiser, Payette and Mountain Home, is included in the fruit growing district, and yield excellent crops of peanuts, sweet potatoes, onions and vegetables in addition to the regular farm crops. A general farmer at Nam pa reports growing 200 to 600 bushels of potatoes. 200 to 500 bushels of onions and 17 to 33 tons of beets per acre. Watermelons grow luxuriously, one man marketing $117 worth and giving away eight wagon loads from a half acre patch. Wheat averages 40 bushels, oats 45, barley 50 and other cereals proportionately to the acre. Some eastern Idaho farmers get over 75 bushels of oats from an acre and instances of much higher yields are recorded by truthful parties whose words cannot be doubted. Hops is one of the important and growing farm industries of the Snake valley and those engaged in the business have good returns for the investment.

Local markets consume much of the ldaho farm and garden products, and, as is always the case in western mining districts, the home market is better than, where the farmer comes in competition with the general producers of the world. The northern counties have numerous valuable ore producing mines and mining towns demanding everything produced. The outside markets are reached by the Oregon Short Line railway, which has a trackage of over 1.000 miles, extending through the state north and south, east and west, connecting all the important shipping points with the Pacific Coast and inland market cities. In 1895, according to the report of the department of agriculture the Idaho production of hay was 459,598 tons, valued at $2,872,488, and the potato crop aggregated 408,240 bushels, worth $163,296. The number of sheep reported at the same time, owned by Idaho citizens, was 899,628 shearing an average of seven and a half pounds of wool each, which at present prices would be equal to a yearly income of over one half million dollars for the state.

Different systems of irrigation are practiced, varying chiefly with the kind of crops cultivated. The majority of farmers I have interviewed use the flooding method and claim the soil will produce one-third more cereals and vegetables by perfect flooding than by any other method. As a general rule the soil is of a similar nature in all the river valleys, being sandy and easily worked. The bench or higher lands contain some alkali in spots, and are more mineralized and gravelly. The hilly slopes and greasewood valleys have a rich, black, loamy soil, which, with heat and moisture make quick growth of trees and plants. So far as I have been able to observe by two trips through the state, there is less alkali and mineralized land than in any other cultivated states of similar area in the West. This poison is drained away by furrow irrigation where the fall is sufficient, or by sub surface ditches in the flooded fields. In some places a rank growth of alfalfa or tall white clover successfully keeps down the alkali by shading the ground.

In 1893 the total mileage of ditches in Idaho, including corporation and individual canals, was estimated at a little over 13,000 miles. This has not been increased to any great extent on account of local and national financial depression, but the number of individual owners of water rights has increased annually. The northern lake counties - Idaho. Kootenai, Latab, Shoshone and Nez Perces are in the sub-humid region, being in direct line of the warm Japan current from the coast, carrying rain laden clouds that furnish abundant moisture. The annual rainfall during the growing season is never less than ten inches in these half arid counties. Although the Chinook winds keep the temperature moderate and bare the ground on the lowlands of snow, there are no hurricanes or tornadoes in any part of the state. Snowfalls on the high tablelands occupying four-fifths of the state, to an average annual depth of six feet, which means about four acre feet of water held there until needed in the growing season.

The arid counties requiring irrigation are so fortunately situated that nearly all the tillable land could be cheaply covered by ditches from natural reservoirs, obtainable in every section. In 1893 the ditches were distributed among the counties as follows: Ada, 62 ditches, 408 miles in length. Alturas, 10 ditches, 18 miles in length covering 14,500 acres. Bear, 69 canals, 206 miles in length, irrigating 21,500 acres, under the Mormon colony system of small farms. Bingham, 86 canals, 517 miles in length, irrigating 284,750 acres by the Mormon colonial plan. Boise, 20 ditches 60 miles in length, capable of irrigating 83,500 acres. Cache, 298 farm ditches, 299 miles in length, furnishing enough water for 82,000 acres. Custer, individual ditches, to irrigate 24,000 acres. Elmore, 50 ditches, 25 miles in length, to irrigate 10,000 acres. Lemhi, 250 ditches, 300 miles in length, to irrigate 10,000 acres. Logan, 120 ditches, 300 miles in length, to irrigate 50,000 acres. Oneida, 65 ditches, 100 miles in length to irrigate 38,800 acres. Owyhee, 66 ditches, 153 miles in length, capable of irrigating 21,300 acres. Washington, 270 farm ditches, 290 miles in length, irrigating 40,000 acres.

Irrigation pumps, windmills and other water lifting devices are not very numerous in Idaho, neither are the canals very extensive investments because of the great supply of water everywhere. The entire canal systems of the state represent an outlay of less than three million dollars, while one system in some other states has cost as much for furnishing water to a very limited area. There is no state, in my opinion, in the arid section offering such inducements to men of limited capital, for obtaining homes and an independent water supply as the state of Idaho, although the general opinion of those unacquainted with actual conditions may be to the reverse. I have no land to sell and do not oven own an interest in any canal or farm in the state, but merely write what I have seen and learned from personal investigations. The homeseeker, investor and student of irrigation will do well to visit this new state before accepting all the statements of agents and writers, but at the same time remember there are other good slates offering excellent inducements for colonists and the investment of capital.

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