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State aims to protect Utah farmland

Chris Conrad, left, and Brent F. Hunter listen to speakers during a panel discussion at a sustainable farming conference.
Chris Conrad, left, and Brent F. Hunter listen to speakers during a panel discussion at a sustainable farming conference.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's agricultural land is disappearing at an "alarming" rate, according to state leaders who unveiled a proposal Monday designed to protect the state's food supply.

Under the plan announced by Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, some current tax revenue would be rerouted to help expand conservation easements in the state.

If adopted, the Agriculture Sustainability Investment Fund would provide further dollars to agricultural landowners who wish to continue production but are under pressure to develop the property.

Under the conservation easement program, interested owners may receive government compensation for their development rights in exchange for maintaining their lands for agricultural purposes, Draxler said.

Despite a lull in the housing market, farmers and ranchers across the state say they are under increasing financial pressure to develop or sell their land, and the proposed measure seeks to provide further incentive to preserve agriculture operations.

"The public and its representatives understand its time to do something about this," Draxler said. "I think the tide is turning."

Various state and federal programs already subsidize conservation easements and Draxler's proposal would provide one more source for landowners.

Cache Valley landowner Jon White said legislators need to act to protect agriculture in the state.

"This has to happen," he said. "We need to provide viable incentives for people to stay in business. If you take away the ground, we can't produce."

The proposal would reallocate "rollback" taxes collected when agricultural land is taken out of production and placed into development, according to preliminary information about the proposal.

As the taxes accrue, the funds will be appropriated through local committees elected to administer the money. No staff will need to be hired to administer the extra funds, and no new taxes will be levied, Draxler said.

Utah Commissioner of Agriculture and Food Leonard Blackham said that in past years, rollback taxes have averaged $8 million to $10 million annually but are expected to be significantly less now because of the economic slump.

Currently, rollback taxes are used for a variety of county needs, including schools, said Utah County Commissioner Larry Ellertson.

"It is always a challenge to balance protecting our food supply with other needs," he said.

Draxler said because rollback tax revenues fluctuate from year to year and vary from county to county, the effect of reallocation would be minimal.

"The revenues are parceled up, so it is not usually a significant amount for any one entity," he said.

The legislation was still being drafted when Draxler announced the plan on Monday at a gathering of farmers, ranchers and state, county and local leaders.

Attendees heard from Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, as well as city and agricultural planners from around the country.

Bell stressed the importance of long-term planning to protect Utah's food sources.

"We need to take a step back and do some strategic planning," he said. "We can make a difference about securing our food supply."

Blackham said food supplies are often overlooked during long-term planning.

"So far, we've had the luxury of ignoring this issue, but more Utahns than ever are thinking about this," he said. "At the same time our population increases, our productive land decreases."

Cache County Councilman and dairy farmer Craig Buttars said when any agricultural operation folds, it usually takes surrounding support industries with it, making it harder for any remaining farms or ranches.

"It makes it that much more important to provide support for important agriculture businesses," he said,