Don't make Utah agriculture a scapegoat for what's happening to Great Salt Lake

Tuesday , May 17, 2016 - 6:30 AM3 comments

RON GIBSON, Utah Farm Bureau

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

— Aldo Leopold

It was frustrating to read a story in the Standard-Examiner that focused on the important contributions of the Great Salt Lake to population, economic growth and recreational opportunities in Utah, and yet ignored or devalued the contributions of agriculture (”Utah’s population growth questionable without Great Salt Lake” May 3). While all are entitled to an opinion, the article lacked the balance needed for readers to properly make conclusions regarding an industry that has such a rich history in our county and that we all rely on daily.

In the article, University of Utah Professor Gabriel Lozada touts the importance of the Great Salt Lake while devaluing contributions of local food production. Are his opinions in line with the majority of Utahns? Consider recent data from the massive Envision Utah survey regarding Utah’s future. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said local food production was important to them and were willing to make sacrifices to protect it.

The survey results from a cross-section of Utahns revealed that rather than cutting off water for agriculture, Utahns want to “provide enough water for agriculture to allow farms to thrive and increase food production” and “dramatically increase production of fruits, vegetables and dairy products in Utah.” To do this, Envision Utah found that Utahns would need to significantly reduce the amount of agricultural water being converted to urban areas.

Water is a challenging issue in Utah. As the second driest state in the nation, farmers and ranchers may understand more than most the precarious nature our state is in – especially during the drought periods of recent years. But while we measure and analyze the impacts of water use in Utah, it’s important to get a full and accurate picture of our state’s water resources and the contributions of local agriculture.

The first item to consider is at that over 88 percent of Utah’s precipitation is returned to the natural environment and groundwater recharge without ever being touched by man. Of that remaining amount, 4.5 percent is used in agriculture and a little less than 1 percent is used in the traditional municipal and industrial uses most of us are familiar with.

It’s also important to remember that plants are the most efficient users of water. Of the water used in agriculture, approximately half is returned to the environment to recharge groundwater or be cycled again to another user. In municipal uses, none of that water is reused.

Life grows where water flows. There may be no truer statement in agriculture, but the same applies to all segments of our free market society. With an open market, goods come and go through a system of exchanges. This applies to agriculture, where water is used to grow crops that are used both locally and around the globe. But this is true whether we are shipping alfalfa or the computer chips that many are proud to say come from Utah. Rather than vilifying the use of water, let’s rejoice in the wonderful food system that lets us get products to market around the world and enjoy a quality of life unparalleled in time.

With populations set to double in Utah by 2050, the Standard-Examiner’s story points to the need for water-wise landscaping – a wise proposal – and yet eliminating agriculture to potentially support a population of 14 million. Is that what we want in Utah? Do we want to eliminate the open spaces afforded to us by both rural and urban agriculture? What of the air quality in the state when irrigated fields and meadows are traded for more blacktop? Are Utah’s precious and limited growing regions to be converted from multi-generational family farms to marketing slogans of the latest housing development?

Instead of pinning agriculture as the scapegoat, look at the great improvements and conservation efforts made over generations. This includes multi-generational farming families like the Ferrys, who’ve worked along the Great Salt Lake to set-up conservation easements, voluntarily taken land out of production and turned it into wetlands in order to enhance wildlife, battled water-guzzling phragmites, and more.

In addition to the Ferry family, farmers and ranchers work with USU Extension scientists and government agencies to apply conservation practices on their land in a way that benefits their businesses and the environment. Let’s focus on what we all can do to make the wise use – not the non-use – of our resources.

Ron Gibson is the president of Utah Farm Bureau. He is from West Weber.

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