In 2011, Gov. Gary Herbert created the Utah Agricultural Task Force comprised of legislators and county commissioners from across the state. They concluded that Utah should not become further dependent on external sources “for such a basic and critical need as food,” and warned that our “local food security is at risk.”
Brigham Young said that Utah’s fertile soils were worth their weight in gold, and they called upon state and local officials to preserve our surviving farms, concluding that “the value of these lands surpasses … the value of nearly every other conceivable use, and should be reserved for our food security needs.”
Little has come of this stark warning. Along the Wasatch Front, farms are disappearing at an accelerating rate. Cities annex and rezone agriculture into residential developments as fast as they can find funds for new roads. They have both threatened and used eminent domain against farmers, many of whom do not want their farms parceled by asphalt and traffic.
Utah has precious little farmland. Idaho, with half of our population, has five times our viable acreage; there are single counties in Illinois and Minnesota with more arable land than our entire state. The deficit is growing. From 1982 to 2010, Utah lost 13 percent of its farms, most of them among its irrigated best. Another 50 percent may disappear by mid-century. Only Hawaii and Alaska are farther than we are from the food they eat. Only our immediate neighbors — Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming — produce less food than we do.
Fifty years ago, Utah was largely food self-sufficient. We are still independent in meat and dairy, a strength we should protect by saving even fields of hay and feed corn. Our Wasatch benches are among the best fruit lands in the nation, an inheritance of our pioneer forebears who made the desert blossom not in roses but in the blushed petals of apples, peaches, plums and cherries. Only a remnant survives — fruit we used to produce, preserve and even export. If current trends continue, by 2050 all of Utah Valley’s remaining orchards will have disappeared under housing. Heber C. Kimball insisted that “the followers of Christ will always have orchards,” but our generation is witnessing fruit trees, some with rootstock as old as our oldest residents, backhoed into piles and set afire.
That future, hot August when you will not be able to buy a fresh, locally grown peach will be a tragedy for all of us — particularly for our children. A commendable capacity for self-sufficiency is part of our state’s heritage, but for all our preparation, we are losing the literal ground. In a long-term crisis, those who have had the wisdom to set aside food storage will have only purchased the right to be the last to go hungry.
In debates about the merits of housing versus farms, people ask “where are our children going to live?” We can easily make space by building at higher densities in our central cities and on infertile land on the periphery. With so many un-farmable parcels, it makes no sense to build out over good farmland.
The best way forward in protecting local farms is well established: Agricultural easements, free-market tools that pay farmers for the development value of their land, protect agriculture in perpetuity. Farmers, who in other states line up for the opportunity, continue to own, control and farm their land. In 2016, federal, state and local entities elsewhere spent $4 billion to preserve their local farms. Pennsylvania, which has now spent $1.5 billion to preserve 3.9 million acres, currently funds half of its annual easements with a state cigarette tax. States that take food security seriously identify vulnerable farms and target them for protection. In Utah, planning offices continue to map them for destruction.
We ask officials at every level to reconsider agricultural land as already serving its highest use. Utah’s residents, the majority of whom favor protecting farms, should encourage their representatives to promote and fund easements, which can make farm preservation a reality here. Easements reward current farmers so they, like their forebears, can continue a work vital to our communities. They can also offer Utahns a better tasting and more secure future.