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Utah agriculture upbeat about prices, challenges

But property rights were dealt 'a real blow' in '05

While many farmers and ranchers are seeing higher prices for their products and some reprieve from the yearslong drought, challenges remain, Utah Farm Bureau Federation officials said Friday.

"Agriculture has progressed so much that we have actually brought upon us in some instances what we might call our own demise," Leland Hogan, UFBF president, said Friday at the group's annual convention. "I don't want you to take that demise as being bad. Actually, agriculture has been one of the most successful free enterprise stories ever told. The most successful in the Free World."

A few decades ago, Hogan said, about 3 percent of Americans were engaged in agriculture. Today, that number has declined by half. Still, Hogan said, commodity production has increased on an annual basis about 2 percent.

"That's a marvelous, marvelous thing to have done," he said.

However, he added, there is much still to do. Education efforts must be increased so more people know about agriculture, its impact and its contribution to the overall quality of life in Utah. Property rights and institutional learning "have taken a real blow this year," he said, threatening personal liberties and the broader social fabric and economic environment.

The Utah federation reports steady membership levels, averaging about 20,000 members, said Randy Parker, the UFBF's chief executive officer. About 95 percent of Utah's farms and ranches remain family operations, largely able to escape the broader movement toward corporate farms and agribusiness.

"Family farms are absolutely the foundation of production agriculture in Utah," Parker said. "Utah probably has a larger percent of small family farms and ranches than other states in the nation. The makeup of agriculture in Utah is more diverse — and because of the nature of that, it's not as conducive to the corporate structure, the large agriculture units you see in the Southeast and Midwest."

Statewide, agriculture contributes $1.5 billion to the economy, Parker said. That number jumps to $3.5 billion — and 100,000 jobs — when production, processing, transportation and other factors are taken into account.

After years of drought, plagues of insects and early freezes, Parker reported that farmers might finally be able to breathe easier — at least for now.

"Prices in the marketplace for agriculture producers are strong, and after the recent difficult, lower-price period, this is refreshing," Parker said. "There is a positive outlook among Utah farmers and ranchers."

Still, like Hogan, Parker said there are challenges on the horizon, including expected population growth and the potential for skirmishes along the urban-rural fringe and food security issues. But both maintain that Utah's farmers are up to the challenge.

"We are at a turning point. We're right on the edge," Hogan said. "But I think that agriculture is always on the edge — because it was the first industry, it will be the last industry, and it will always be the industry on the cutting edge. That will always be the case.

"We're always forging new ground. We're always experimenting with new things. That's just the nature of what we do. We do it well, we've survived in the past and will continue to survive in the future."