Idaho couple struggles to rehabilitate family pasture land

The Idaho Farm Bureau shares the St. Anthony couple’s story, who have a goal of restoring a pasture to what it once was — but find themselves limited.

Val and Marta Hammond of St. Anthony, Idaho, grow commodities as well as have a cow-calf operation on their ranch in Freemont County. The couple has the goal of restoring a pasture to what it once was but finds themselves limited. The Idaho Farm Bureau shares their story with us, which the couple hope will help landowners facing similar situations around the state and country.

“We’re here to talk about just one of the problems, one of the challenges we face as far as increasing the efficiency of our ranch as far as being able to increase cattle numbers on pasture,” Val said. “We’re just using the dirt that they pushed up and trying to put it back where it was in the first place we’re just trying to restore it as once was.”

However, while they would love to restore their pasture from swampy sub water to healthy grazing grasses, they worry they may be fined if they do so.

Marta said the ranch was first farmed by her grandfather, who came to the area in 1886 and was one of the first five farmers to homestead the area near the Snake River. As part of that process, he attempted to make the land more productive by digging up the pasture and irrigating it with groundwater.

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Marta Hammonds’ grandfather purchased their family homestead in 1886. (Hammond Family via IAFB)

“At that time, it was all Sagebrush,” she explained. “It was all just a dry creek, and he ran horses, and he ran cattle down there. I’ve ridden that ground since I was a little tiny girl. It used to be that you could ride a horse all the way across it -- it was dry. It was very, very dry, and in his attempt to make it more productive for cattle he thought that if he just went in and bladed out some ground that the water would fill the ponds and then everything would green -- and it did to some extent -- except that there was no drainage, and so the water would just sit he thought that by digging holes, it would help his pasture.”

What seemed to work for the family farm many decades ago is now a somewhat irreversible decision that’s left the current generation in a bit of a bind.

“But when you dig up pasture, you lose ground --and that’s what has happened with this pasture,” she said. “Almost half of the pasture is in ponds now, and we don’t want the ponds because it decreases our efficiency as far as how many animal units we can put on that ground. My grandpa was just simply trying to make the land more productive when he pushed out the ponds.”

Her husband, Val, found a difficult but workable solution. Over a decade ago, he began filling each pond with dirt. He said it was a slow process that required a lot of time and a lot of dirt. The ponds he was able to fill and rehabilitate, they said, are now usable. But they had to stop when a local agriculture leader warned them to stop, saying they could be fined.

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One of the swampy ponds in the Hammonds’ pasture they want to fill to use for cattle grazing. (IAFB)

“One of the visits that I had at our local FSA office, the gal that I know there brought me into her office and she just said: ‘Val, you’ve got to quit. You’ve got to quit filling in those ponds. If you don’t, you’re going to have the Army Corps of Engineers come down on you, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money. I would advise you to quit,’ Val recalled. “So I quit filling in the ponds. I stopped filling in the ponds probably 13 years ago.”

Now, the Hammonds say they need help from the community and regulators to restart the process — which they say is, technically, just returning the land to how it was before Marta’s grandfather started homesteading there in the late 1800s — without fear of financial ramifications.

“We would like to be able to fill in the berms, fill in the ponds, and make this pasture a good efficient use of real estate---so that’s the process. That’s what we were trying to do, and we’re just looking for an opportunity to continue to do so to make that pasture a better place than it is now. The earth that was here was pushed up to create these ponds, we’d just like to put the earth back in the pond, so that it becomes productive. Because, as you can see, this has no value to us or to the cattle. Swamp grass like this doesn’t have any nutritive value, or very little, and it only lasts for just a brief period of time and then it burns up.”

The ponds in their pasture lands do not have a live water source. Instead, they are fed with groundwater, coming up in the springtime and drying up in the fall and winter, which the Hammonds say can be misleading.

“People think that we turn live water into this. We don’t,” Val said. “And you can see, the farther that you get out here the wetter it becomes. You can see the cows can only work ‘til about this area and then they start to sink. The Cattails literally get so bad in here that it’s just unreal. They’re not hot grasses that any animal is going to eat. They’re harsh, bitter swamp grasses, and the cattle won’t eat them at all they just stay completely away from them, so we get double grazing on the good grass and no grazing on this at all.”

They say, the land as it is — filled with man-made ponds and swamps — also does not benefit wildlife. The Hammonds understand, as stewards of the land, that making it more accessible and safer for wildlife is also an important undertaking. On the other hand, the pasture areas they were able to rehabilitate are no longer “wasteland” but productive, efficient, and usable as cattle grazing areas.

“We’re not taking away any wildlife [or] habitat at all --- there’s plenty of places for those birds and those animals to go,” Val said. “We feed a lot of deer and a lot of moose out here during the winter. This [rehabilitated pasture] is often a place they come through and stop, so we’re doing our share.”

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An aerial view of the Hammonds’ ranch in Idaho. (IAFB)

They have also seen an increase in natural, native grasses growing in the rehabilitated areas without seeding the area. However, as it stands, they cannot manage their herd in these areas because it continues to be too dangerous for the animals.

“See, these are the grasses that cattle love to eat,” Val said. “They come through here and they top this off, and this is all just grown in it’s all come back since he filled it in. We didn’t seed or anything --- this is natural. There are areas where, if I have a cow go down, I can’t get to that cow because it’s so swampy. I can’t even access an animal if the animal gets in trouble. I can’t access the animal because you can’t get to it. It’s so swampy. These swamps, these huge holes of water, aren’t natural. They were dug out and we’re just trying to put them back the way they were originally.”

The Hammonds want to share their story because they know other family farms might be suffering the same sort of circumstances.

“The reason we want to tell our story to everyone is the fact that we’ve got this beautiful piece of land, and we know that farmers all across America do too. They have places that they love places that are heritage places that have come to them through family, and they want to keep it and they want to make it the best that they possibly can just like anyone wants to make their home and their yard better. We just want to make it better.”

Saint Anthony, the city in Idaho where the Hammonds reside, is located near the St. Anthony Sand Dunes, a 10,000-acre area of white quartz sands.

Reporting by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

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