A loaf of bread helped make the most compelling argument in favor of a conservation easement Thursday.

Alan Maki, a fourth-generation Bitterroot Valley farmer, stood in front of the Ravalli County commissioners and broke down the math. Holding up a loaf of bread that cost him $3.88 at the grocery store the night before, Maki said with the amount of wheat produced on the Popham Ranch, they could produce 700,000 of those loaves - each year. That's more than $2.7 million contributed to the local economy.

And that, among a host of others, is one reason Maki urged the commissioners to approve a conservation easement on the Popham Ranch.

"It's important to our economy and it's important to my stomach," Maki joked, drawing laughs from the 20 people in the room.

The commissioners agreed. The board voted unanimously to approve permanently conserving about 185 acres of agricultural property on the Popham Ranch.

The ranch, owned by Bob and Jane Popham and located about three miles northeast of Corvallis, was homesteaded in 1882 and has remained a productive agricultural operation since. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The Pophams do have a very long history on this place," said Gavin Ricklefs, director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, which is sponsoring the project. "This is one of the most well-run operations in the valley. It's really an agricultural icon in a very important part of the valley."

The Popham Ranch sits in an area with more than 2,000 acres currently in agricultural production.

"It has the highest productivity of any neighborhood in the valley," Ricklefs said.

Within a mile of the ranch, more than 1,000 acres of ranch land are already under conservation easements.

"There's definitely a tradition here," Ricklefs said.

Popham Ranch makes 11 conservation easements funded by the county's open lands bond, a $10 million bond approved by voters in 2006.

This project is requesting $189,300 from the Open Lands Bond Program. They anticipate matching funds from the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

The Pophams received nothing but support from area ranchers, neighbors and friends at Thursday's hearing.

"I think this is a great opportunity for young kids to stay in agriculture," said Larry Trexler. "We need to encourage this."

Dan Severson, who had a conservation easement approved late last year, said the Popham ranch is the envy of many farmers in the county and deserves to be protected for future generations.

"All of us old guys who have lived in the valley a long time, we're jealous of the great land they have down there," Severson said.

Commissioners seemed equally impressed with the ranch's operations.

"I admire the 130 years of stewardship," said Commissioner Greg Chilcott. "That's impressive."

"This is an excellent, excellent project," said Commissioner Suzy Foss.

Commission Chair J.R. Iman said the Popham Ranch is a great tradition.

"I support this 100 percent," Iman said.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher, who has voiced his disapproval of the Open Lands Bond Program in the past, was swayed by strong arguments from Maki and voted in favor of approval.

Reach reporter Whitney Bermes at 363-3300 or whitney.bermes@ravallirepublic.com.