Road corridors, housing, businesses devouring agricultural spaces

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:11 PM

Antone Clark

Mormon crickets played a key adversarial role in the early history of farming in Utah, but increasingly the pest is giving way to an even greater challenge facing modern-day farmers in the Beehive State: development.

Utah’s growth is coming at the expense of its farmland, creating more questions than definitive answers when looking at the state’s future.

Randy Parker, president of the state Farm Bureau, is hesitant to be too specific about where agriculture will be in the Beehive State in the next two decades, but he’s confident the need for agricultural products will grow, even as the state may lose farmland to development.

Of the state’s roughly 16,600 farms, approximately 12 million acres are in agricultural use. Of those 12 million acres, 1.2 million are irrigated.

“An old buddy of mine, made this comment:‘Blacktop and rooftops are the last crop for many farms,’ ” Parker says.

Even though farmland was afforded special protection in 1980, he says it’s going to be difficult for many families to hold onto the land for agricultural use in areas where the land is more valuable for development than farming.

“One of those issues that is very difficult to grapple with is private property rights. Someone who owns property has rights to sell it for whatever use,” Parker says.

But once lost, the farmland never returns to agricultural use.

That struggle seems especially apparent in northern Davis and southern Weber counties, where farmland is slowly eroding into developments.

Historically, Syracuse has been one of the richest farming areas in Davis County. That is slowly trending the other direction.

Discussion of a new road corridor connecting Farmington to Weber County has increasingly put pressure on that farmland and renewed discussion of what kind of community the city will be in the future.

“The bottom line is, if (the proposed corridor) goes west through the farmlands, a lot of farms and farmers will be out of business,” says Dan Hamblin, a Syracuse farmer.

Charles Black, owner of Black Island Farms in Syracuse, describes soil along the east bank of Great Salt Lake as “prime” and says forcing other uses would be a big loss.

“Farms are the only one of those that can’t be replaced,” he says.

Black’s daughter, Dorathy Law, is especially passionate about keeping the farm in use and within the family. She says the rate of lost farms a few years ago was so high it appeared the U.S. would eventually lose its farm independence.

“It’s sad to say, but homes can be replaced. Farms can’t. A lot of neighbors have said, ‘Why don’t you move your farm? You could buy some property in Mountain Green.’ But you just can’t make a farm anywhere,” Law says.

Her son is one of the managers of Black Island Farms, which grows vegetables and has a renowned corn maze every year. She is delighted her passion and that of her father to work the land is being passed on.

“We want to continue farming as long as possible,” Law says.

One of the proposed corridor routes cuts through Lyle Johnston’s hayfield, and a portion of the family farm he grew up on has already been sold to Davis School District as a possible site for a high school in West Point.

Johnston owns 55 acres, leases another 50 and raises wheat and hay.

He says the economy has hurt farmers as much as development. He has grandchildren who are actively involved and have an interest in farming the land, which has now been in his family for 112 years.

Besides losing swaths of farmland, it is increasingly apparent that individual farms in the Beehive State are getting smaller.

Of the 16,660 farms shown in the 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for Utah, 10,200, or about 61 percent, showed an average income of less than $10,000.

By contrast, Idaho has 24,700 farms and Colorado has 36,700. Of the farms in Idaho, less than half recorded revenue less than $10,000; in Colorado, just more than half fit into that category.

Jared Christensen, director of marketing for the Department of Agriculture, points to a study done by Utah State University as proof agriculture still has a big impact in the Beehive State.

He says the $1.5 billion in agricultural production in Utah actually translates to an economic impact of about $15 billion, or approximately 14 percent of the state’s economy.

That accounts for approximately 70,000 jobs, Parker says.

Ironically, as the state’s farmland dwindles, its export opportunities are increasing.

Hay is becoming a particularly popular export.

Because it is grown in a less-humid climate than elsewhere in the U.S. and stores so well, Utah hay is especially popular, Christensen says.

Parker finds it ironic that Gossner Foods, based in Cache Valley, is the only company authorized to sell milk in a special container to China.

He says Utah’s geography and access to ports throughout the West will make it a popular site for food manufacturing companies.

“We’re about a day to the West Coast as the Crossroads to the West. That will continue.”

The number of dairy farms in the state is trending downward. Parker says local farmers have to import a lot of corn, cotton and soybeans for feed, and those costs add stress to the bottom line.

Besides feed, another impact of development is an increased demand for access to water rights currently held by farmers.

“We’re a federal lands state, and only about 20 percent of our land base is privately owned. It puts a lot of pressure on those private land resources in a state still growing to move it from production agriculture into development,” Parker says.

“As water becomes more and more valuable, it almost prices itself out of being useful for the production of food,” he adds.

Water issues will force a debate on how important it is to state residents to be self-sufficient in food production, Parker says.

Still, Utah is developing other agricultural niches.

The production of turkeys is big, with state farmers raising 6 million to 7 million birds per year.

Parker thinks that niche will be even more important in the future.

“Both our dairy and turkey growers are people who understand the value of marketing and establishing niche markets.”

Christensen says he sees some trend changes in consumers’ regard for local farms.

He expects to see a swing back to farmers markets and to people being able to buy locally produced food.

Parker agrees, saying it is increasingly important to some consumers to know where their food comes from.

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