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Agriculture commissioner takes long-term view

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SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah, agricultural production and processing make up 14 percent of the state's economy, with approximately 66,000 jobs tied directly and indirectly to the agriculture industry.

That translates into about $15.2 billion annually, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Food.

Recognizing the fiscal significance of the industry, the agency has created a plan to increase the profile of one of the state's top economic drivers.

The department recently launched a website aimed at bolstering support for local agriculture. AgriAdvocates.org touts the benefits of Utah's farming and ranching industry as well as important agricultural and environmental issues facing the state, said Leonard Blackham, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

"We hope that we can develop a balanced approach in this website so that people can realize that this is a place they can turn to get honest information they can rely on," Blackham said.

In Utah, only 3.7 percent of farmers and ranchers produce 75 percent of all the food in the state, he said.

Utah raises enough beef to be self-sufficient if producers were able to process and sell the commodity in-state. The state also produces more than enough lamb, cheese, milk, eggs and turkey to fulfill the needs of the Utah population, the agency website stated.

Of the current U.S. population, only 2 percent work as farmers, and just 5.7 percent of those farmers and ranchers make 75 percent of the food produced in the country. Most of the other farmers are part time.

Blackham said that getting more Utahns to understand the positive attributes of its vibrant agriculture industry will increase the state's ability to remain primarily self-sufficient in the long term.

"Generally speaking, if we enhance the sustainability of our agriculture, then we're generally enhancing the environment, recreational quality opportunities (and) wildlife," he said.

He said the key to success would be working with policymakers and advocates to develop workable solutions that are mutually beneficial to agriculture and the environment.

"We've been environmentalists for years in agriculture, (but) the word we use is conservationist," Blackham said.

e-mail: jlee@desnews.com