Utah has become the 3rd fastest growing state in America. St. George and Provo are among the six fastest growing metro areas. Salt Lake County boasts well over 1 million people. We welcome this growth, but are we prepared for the challenges it brings?¹
Earlier this year Leonard Blackham, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture, approached Governor Herbert and me about addressing the imminent need to preserve and protect Utah’s agriculture industry. The Governor created the Agriculture Sustainability Task Force, co-chaired by Comr. Blackham and myself, to confront this important issue. The Task Force recently completed seven months of hearings and discussions. Participation from farmers, ranchers, conservationists, urban gardeners, government officials and legislators was extensive and gratifying. We reported the Task Force’s recommendations to the Legislature this week and met with enthusiastic interest.
For some time, Comr. Blackham has asked whether Utah is willing to preserve its safe and self-sufficient food supply. We rely more and more on other states and other nations to feed us. It is simply unwise to depend wholly on distant and foreign producers and governments for our life-sustaining food supply. We already suffer from this kind of dependency on oil-producing nations. Please let’s not depend on another Hugo Chavez for our milk.
Having a reliable supply of fresh food is an important reason to maintain Utah farms and ranches. Whether from the local grocery store, restaurant, or farmer’s market, health-conscience consumers want access to fresh produce and meats, preferably locally-grown.
One of the biggest threats to Utah’s agriculture is urban expansion. Local farms, once far away from the city, are now surrounded by it. Simply relocating farms and orchards isn’t always possible. The soils surrounding Utah Lake are uniquely suited for apple orchards, lavender and strawberries. The benches of Box Elder County are great for peaches. The low-lying Washington Fields near St. George are just right for a whopping five yearly alfalfa crops. However, these areas are also prime land for new homes, auto dealerships, and shopping centers. You can see the collision coming. Thankfully, the recession has given farmers some respite from the inexorable suburban expansion. We need to use this lull to set our policy to preserve high-value agricultural properties.
As one of its highest priorities, the Task Force asked the Legislature to recognize in statute that prime agricultural lands must stand on a footing with other land uses. This has recently come to the fore as UDOT seeks to determine highway corridors. Paving over fields and meadows rather than removing homes seems like the obvious solution for a new highway. However, moving the corridor away from all homes might destroy family-owned farms which produce world-class onions, carrots and fruits, etc. Agricultural lands should not have priority—but in major land use decisions they should be considered on the same footing as other uses. We cannot use “open” fields simply because they present the course of least political resistance.
The Task Force report settles on nine major priorities and lists many innovative and practical strategies to preserve critical farm and ranch property. You may obtain a copy of the report here.
¹St. George Provo-Orem Growing Fast, Salt Lake Tribune, 3/23/2010, http://bit.ly/btUwog