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Guest opinion: You may think I shouldn't be optimistic about Utah's agriculture, but you'd be wrong

Last year was Utah’s driest on record. As commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, I should be filled with doom and gloom.
Last year was Utah’s driest on record. As commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, I should be filled with doom and gloom.
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Last year was Utah’s driest on record. As commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, or UDAF, I should be filled with doom and gloom. But I’m not. In fact, not even close.

My husband, Bob, and I are fifth-generation ranchers. Bob’s grandfather ran Palomino horses on our land in Box Elder County in the late 1800s. Over several generations our land has produced many things, including our current cattle operation. We’ve lived through economic trials, natural disasters and much more. But we keep working.

Our life in agriculture isn’t much different than other farmers and ranchers. As a unified body, we’ve enjoyed prosperity and an enviable lifestyle. We also know something of hardship, loss and fears. Our best response to all of it is work, because … it works.

Today, I want to share what’s working in Utah agriculture — the source of my optimism.

Let’s begin with the drought. Utah is prone to extremes in weather. It’s documented that indigenous tribes in Utah adapted to these conditions for thousands of years, moving between farming and hunting. We’ve experienced five floods since 1952, and six multi-year droughts since the 1890s, two of which were 12 years.

But here’s the good news: We’re innovating and adapting. Farmers and ranchers are using funds to improve water quality and purchase technology that strategically delivers this precious resource at optimal moments and with pin-point precision. We’ll continue to experience droughts, but we are getting better and better at managing and conserving what we have.

In 2018, Utah farmers and ranchers faced some new economic challenges. While international trade deals are still in negotiation, we are hearing of progress with Canada, Mexico and other new and emerging markets.

But we’re also seeing producers in Utah pushing back on outside competition, getting traction in overseas markets and by expanding and diversifying their product lines. Last year, UDAF, helped connect 35 Utah companies with overseas trade partners.

Agritourism and farmers markets are booming in our state. Corn mazes, petting zoos and other farm experiences are taking the edge off financial challenges, evening out the highs and lows of farm income. Consumers are also showing a clear preference for locally sourced fruits and vegetables, showing up in droves to purchase better-quality food.

Growers are successfully introducing new varieties of fruits and vegetables and tilling new ground, previously thought to be less fertile. Last year, Utah State University researchers made progress on a fungicide that treats wheat blight, a disease that has cost the industry billions of dollars over the years. Our invasive species program is carefully monitoring and preventing the spread of insects that would compromise our entire ecosystem.

Because the window to sell some produce is small, food waste is an issue. Yet many large institutions (hospitals, schools and business cafeterias) in Utah import food from outside the state for convenience. To correct this, UDAF is actively convening legislators, producers and other community representatives to create a statewide food hub. Utah is one of only a few states without one, but the concept will merge and connect small producers with large institutions.

Utah is also on the cutting edge of high-tech agriculture. For example, dairies are embracing robotics for feeding and milking, lowering labor costs and increasing production. One of our tomato producers is operating a massive indoor greenhouse in Mona that enables year-round production. Farmers and ranchers are inventing and using laser, drone and GPS technology to perform all kinds of tasks designed to save money and boost revenue.

Overall, agriculture in Utah accounts for 15.1 percent of the state’s total economic output, generating $21.2 billion annually and employing more than the top three employers combined. We rank second in the country in tart cherry and wool production, and fifth in sheep livestock and safflower production. We are recognized nationally for our chocolate and cheese industries, and are successfully exporting dozens of other foods and commodities in growing numbers.

Yes, Utah agriculture has its share of challenges — we always have. But you can see why I am optimistic. Our agriculture producers are at their core what we all aspire to be. They are innovators, yes, but more central than that, they are honest and know how to work.