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Guest opinion: Fanning the flames of success in Utah’s agriculture and food scene

SHARE Guest opinion: Fanning the flames of success in Utah’s agriculture and food scene
The former railroad mecca of Corinne, Utah, is now mostly a farming town.

The former railroad mecca of Corinne, Utah, is now mostly a farming town.

Lee Benson

In the weeks since my appointment as commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, I’ve been inspired. I am amazed at the depth and breadth of UDAF staff, programs and services. I dare say there isn’t a person in Utah whose life is not sustained and blessed by the work of UDAF.

This important state agency oversees the safeguarding and protection of our food supply, promotes the prosperity agriculture and food producers, and generates equity and fairness for all. I wish everyone reading this could see and learn what I have in this sort time.

So let’s do it. In the coming months and years, my office will be in fields, fairgrounds, and food facilities across Utah. You will hear me share messages of hope, optimism and the good works of UDAF and our ag producers, but I will also continue to listen and learn. I want to know what matters most to you. What are your successes? What are your fears? What can we do at UDAF to make your life better?

In the agriculture and food industry, it seems we are either fanning the flames of success or dousing the fires of fear. Here at UDAF, we have a long history of that and will continue to do both. We’ll work to sensitize and simplify our regulatory demands; we’ll maintain the highest level of safety and quality Utahn’s expect; and we’ll also develop new and better ways to promote growth and prosperity, to give all producers the tools they need to succeed locally and abroad.

Let me share some areas I plan to help fan the flames of success.

We all need food to live, but I believe our reliance on imported commodities is out of balance. Utah is rich in both variety and abundance, and we continue innovate and create better methods of production and distribution. We simply don’t need to rely on producers outside the state as much as we once did. To that end, we will amplify our branded Utah’s Own buy local campaign, so that citizens get more of the freshness and quality products they demand.

Utahn’s also need to know their food is safe. The UDAF regulatory inspection team has a track record of success, spotting foodborne illness outbreaks and issues early. I’m excited about the development and launch of the Utah Rapid Response Team — a committee of federal and statewide partners that will soon convene regularly to level up these efforts. This, too, increases our capacity to make a critical impact on the lives of citizens.

Speaking of federal and state agency engagement, I am proud of the improved communications and land management work UDAF facilitates between the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, state agencies and our ranchers. Open dialogue, coordination and collaboration preserves rangeland and watershed productivity and sustainability. But it also helps foster an economic balance and quality of life for rural Utah.

UDAF has also enjoyed great success in managing invasive species. They are small and tend to go unnoticed by most, but foreign insects such as Bark Beetle and Emerald Bore Ash can create millions of dollars in damage to our trees. Our team of insect experts collaborate with other agencies in cooperative efforts such as the Don’t Move Firewood campaign to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Another success story is the completion of our legislative mandate to develop the rule-making and oversight of industrial hemp manufacturing and distribution earlier this year. I am also happy to report that the same process for the cannabis program (medical marijuana) is moving ahead transparently and on schedule. Growers will be licensed in the fall and we expect a final product available by the beginning of 2020.

Finally, I want douse the flames of fear by addressing a sensitive topic that has touched me personally. As a fifth-generation dairyman from Weber County, I know something of the pressures that farmers and ranchers are under. It’s a risky business and sometimes, despite our best efforts, prosperity is elusive.

Suicide is not my favorite topic — I wish I didn’t feel there was a need to even bring it up. There are many factors behind it and the subject is nuanced, but studies clearly indicate that farmers take their lives at a higher rate than other professions. Let me be clear that suicide at any rate, in any profession, is not acceptable and we can all do more to help shoulder the burdens of those who are hurting.

One of my most important messages and efforts as commissioner will be to ensure we are doing more to love and care for one another as communities. We must do more to extend resources and programs out to the farmers and ranchers experiencing pressures that lead to hopelessness, depression and thoughts of suicide.

Thank you for this unique opportunity to serve you. I invite you to join me in keeping an eye on optimism. Let’s all do our part to fan the flames of success and quickly douse fears and uncertainty. May the silos of our lives be filled to capacity with hope, optimism and an abundance of good works.