As governor of the state of Idaho, Brad Little makes sure not to forget where he comes from, and the influence his roots in agriculture have had on his time serving as Idaho’s chief officer.
Brad hails from Emmett, ID, and is currently serving his second term as the state’s governor. He and his wife, Teresa, each have agrarian backgrounds and were raised in sheep and cattle ranching families. Brad’s grandfather, Andy Little, moved to Idaho in the 1890s and worked on the Aikman sheep ranch, where he later assumed ownership and the Little family continues to operate today under Little Land and Livestock. Andy was nicknamed the “Sheep King,” which Brad said stemmed from him running as many as 200,000 sheep at any given time.
Ferenc Morton Szasz, in his book “Scots in the North American West, 1790-1917,” wrote that “Andrew Little’s sheep ranch in Idaho was so famous that a letter addressed simply ‘Andy Little, USA’ found its intended recipient.”
In the early 1960s, the family transitioned from sheep to cattle, and Brad managed the family’s ranching operation for nearly 30 years. “As any rancher knows, the ranching and agricultural businesses world changes all the time,” Brad told WLJ.
“Sometimes, I miss the old days when we did almost everything on horseback,” he said. “There were summers where I’d spend 50 days on a saddle horse often driving cattle from Emmett to Cascade. I complained about it back then because we were out in the heat, snow and the wind. But those were the best years of my life.”
Today, the family owns a predominantly cow-calf operation that is run by Brad’s two sons, Adam and David. Brad’s grandchildren are no strangers to the ranch, making up the fifth generation of ranchers.
Path to politics
Brad’s interest in politics was innate, following in the footsteps of his father, Dave Little, who served in the Idaho House of Representatives and the Senate from the early ’70s through the late ’80s. During the 1981 and 1985 legislative sessions, Brad represented his father as a temporary appointment.
“Dad’s first cousin, Walt, also served in the Idaho House of Representatives for many terms,” he said. “At one time, the three of us all roamed the halls of the Idaho Statehouse when I was an intern working on the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee.”
Brad said he likes to say he entered politics by accident. In 2001, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) appointed Brad to fill a vacant Senate seat in District 8. The following year, Brad ran for reelection in the newly formed District 11 and was elected majority caucus chair in 2003. He held both of these positions until his 2009 appointment as lieutenant governor by predecessor Gov. Butch Otter (R).
“It wasn’t all by accident,” Brad said. “I had always been interested in the political process—my friends and staff affectionately call me a ‘political wonk,’ or so they say. Of course, my upbringing on the ranch gave me a good read on land use and resource policy, the importance of solid infrastructure systems and how to set a good, fiscally sound budget.”
He continued that his experiences on the ranch taught him important lessons, like judgment and how to make a deal. He said he often looks at his fellow legislators and executive branch members and thinks, “I don’t know how good of cattle traders they would be.”
Brad emphasized that as it becomes less common for people to have a background in agriculture, political involvement becomes required for those who do have ties to the industry. “Involvement is especially true as we continue to see increased pressure on land used for farming, grazing, and public use,” he said. “As I always say, when it comes to policy discussions, if you’re not around the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
He added that although agriculture is recognized as a critical component in the state, as fewer people have ties production agriculture, it becomes critical to educate kids and participate in the public arena.
“As ranchers and agrarians, we must do all we can to bolster our young people’s awareness and appreciation for agriculture,” he said. “As more people move into the state, we as an agricultural community and industry leaders must do more to explain why we’re here.”
He continued that ranching and farming need to be profitable enough that the next generation wants to stay involved. “What’s more, it has to be both profitable and enjoyable,” he said. “We produce crops. We produce livestock and milk. But the most important commodity we can produce is young farmers and ranchers.”
Brad said some of his key legislative priorities are intended to benefit the agriculture and natural resources industries. This includes investing in property tax relief, state water infrastructure and drinking and wastewater systems.
In addition, Brad proposes to allocate nearly $600,000 to monitor chronic wasting disease, increase the Fire Suppression Deficiency Fund by $68.7 million, and invest $12 million in grants to help producers with environmental improvement programs. He also proposes funding a $10 million outdoor recreation pilot program that he said will improve and expand access for sportsmen, taking pressure off ag lands from the increased recreation on public lands.
Regarding the management of apex predators, Brad said Idaho is a state where the ag and sportsmen communities work with wildlife managers to ensure all interests are considered in wildlife management plans. He continued that the state is well-equipped to manage wolves and bears and noted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has a poor track record of recovering wildlife.
“On top of being ineffective, the ESA creates undue burdens on western states and our multiple use lands,” he said. “Whether it is wolves, bears or even sage grouse, Idaho has taken a proactive strategy towards creating state wildlife plans to protect key habitat through common-sense measures.”
As with any job, the governor position doesn’t come without its challenges. “Growth in every way, shape and form has been a challenge,” Brad said. Properly managing water issues will be a critical issue, as many water resources are stretched thin across the state.
“If we are not smart and forward thinking, we will end up like other Western states who struggle to maintain a steady supply,” he said.
Along with challenges come opportunities. Introducing new technology has benefited not only his own operation, but also the public policy realm, Brad said. This includes everything from utilizing superior genetics on his ranch—which make a big difference in the cattle industry, he added—to initiatives to increase broadband services in the state’s rural areas. The state is also in the midst of building three new meat packing facilities, which Brad says will create less waste, increase livestock profits, add efficiency and create new jobs.
“There is a great future for agriculture in Idaho,” Brad concluded. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Change is inevitable. Adaptation and survival are optional.’ We all have to adapt to change. Our fathers did it. Our grandfathers did it. We ranchers and agricultural business leaders that have been around a while have had to change our practices—some of those changes we didn’t like very much, but that’s life.”
Brad is looking forward to continuing to connect with and help more Idahoans as part of his political duties, along with enjoying his time as a grandfather and spending many more years with his wife, Teresa.— Anna Miller, WLJ managing editor
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