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Farmers and ranchers: Utah's environmental workforce

As the themes of soil conservation, clean water, reduced carbon emissions and other environmentally-friendly topics take center stage for the Earth Day celebration today, April 22, it is important to note that Utah has a workforce 16,000-strong aiming for those same goals year-round — farmers and ranchers.

Utah’s farm and ranch families — and those throughout America — are dedicated to caring for our planet. They are ethical caretakers of the land and water resources that help make our nation’s bounty possible. Unlike many other jobs, farming is a family affair and usually passed down from one generation to the next. It only makes sense that farmers would try to take the best possible care of their land. Many of these families have been recognized in recent years by the Sand County Foundation — one of the nation’s premier conservation organizations — with its Leopold Conservation Award.

America’s farmers and ranchers are doing their part to feed a growing world, while also caring for the environment. Total U.S. crop yield (tons per acre) has increased more than 360 percent since 1950, while U.S. land used for crops has declined by 70 million acres since 1982.

Shortly after Earth Day 2010, the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service released the latest National Resources Inventory (NRI). Through empirical data, the NRI showed that America’s farmers and ranchers care for the land, and through their actions the environment has continually improved over the past 50 years, while at the same time farm and ranch productivity has dramatically increased.

The 2010 NRI confirms America’s farm and ranch families are producing more with fewer resources. The productivity figures and shrinking environmental footprint of food and fiber production in the United States verified by the NRI data proves that U.S. agriculture is the envy of the world.

Utah’s farmers not only do a great deal to protect their land, they strive to make it better. Aside from planting trees, protecting wetlands and providing wildlife sanctuaries, our farmers work diligently to improve environmental quality by installing conservation buffers on their farmland. Across Utah and the U.S., farmers have voluntarily enrolled 30 million acres into the nation’s Conservation Reserve Program to date, making it the largest public-private partnership for conservation and wildlife habitat in the country.

Conservation tillage, a way of farming that reduces erosion (soil loss) on cropland while using less energy, has grown from 17 percent of acreage in 1982 to 63 percent currently. Careful stewardship by America’s food producers has led to a nearly 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water in that same time period.

Embracing new technology, farmers today are also adopting advanced methods for managing their land and investing in business services that will help them excel in an environmentally sensitive world. Such modern production tools as global positioning satellites, biotechnology, conservation tillage and integrated pest management enhance farm and ranch productivity while reducing the environmental footprint.

Farmers and ranchers are proven and committed environmental stewards, but they are justifiably concerned about the regulatory overreach of the Environmental Protection Agency. At the very time agriculture’s environmental footprint is shrinking, EPA has ramped up its regulatory force. More regulations in the face of clear progress could lead to unintended and negative consequences for the environment.

Utah Farm Bureau agrees that it is good to have a day set aside to intentionally talk about what is needed to save our environment but feels it is more important to do something about it. If Americans really want our nation to "go green," we should support and protect the first green industry — agriculture.

Leland Hogan is a hay farmer and cattle rancher from Tooele County, and president of the Utah Farm Bureau.