SALT LAKE CITY — When Jack Wilbur packed up his box and backed out of the office he was bequeathing to Bradie Jill Jones this past May, he smiled, gave his replacement a conspiratorial wink and said, “Good luck. It’s gonna be crazy.”

She had no idea. 

Taking over as spokeswoman for the Utah State Department of Agriculture and Food during a pandemic does come with its curveballs. Take, for instance, the two press conferences Bradie Jill hosted over a recent three-week stretch.

One was to address the issue of people receiving unsolicited seed packets from China and other Asian countries that were apparently part of a social networking scam called brushing. Don’t Plant the Seeds! was the basic gist of the press conference that was held Tuesday, July 28, in the foyer of the Department of Ag’s headquarters on Redwood Road.

The second press conference, held just 20 days later on Aug. 17, dealt with the news that five mink from two Utah mink farms had been found to be infected with COVID-19. The farms were in quarantine, it was revealed, while tests were underway to see if humans gave the virus to the mink or vice versa. (Subsequent investigations suggest it’s probably the former, not the latter.)

Not only was the subject matter of the pressers without precedent, the two press conferences were the first hosted by the Utah Department of Agriculture in its 99-year history.

Previously, whenever ag issues arose that required press briefings, which wasn’t often, they would be handled by the governor’s office.

But in the chaos of 2020, things don’t always work like they used to.

The seeds from China story affected only a hundred or so unsuspecting victims of internet trollers, apparently chosen randomly. But in a state with a substantial mink industry, the mink story was a bigger, scarier deal. 

Behind the scenes, the mink drama escalated quickly. On Wednesday, a veterinarian visited the two mink farms in question to gather samples from the infected animals. The vet sent the samples to Utah’s ag department, where the COVID-19 infection was confirmed, and were then forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where the diagnosis was also verified. By now it was late Friday afternoon, too late to release the news before the weekend.

Bradie scheduled her press conference for Monday on the steps of the state Capitol. Then she sat down to wait out the 48 hours, hoping the lid would stay on the story.

“Utah is one of the top five mink producers in the country and we worried about what kind of an impact this could have on the mink farmers,” she says. “So it was a long weekend, but we got through it and were able to handle the announcement well, I feel, and stay in control of the situation.”

Hours later, she was fielding calls from the Washington Post and New York Times.

When she took the spokeswoman job, Bradie Jill thought her biggest problem would be to get the media to pay attention to her press releases — not become the head of crisis management and have her phone “ring off the hook.”

The same goes for her boss, Logan Wilde, the new Department of Ag commissioner who stepped down as a legislator and took command of the state agency at the governor’s behest the first of April.

“It’s been kinda crazy. There has definitely been some turmoil,” understates Wilde, a sixth-generation sheep rancher from the Morgan County farm town of Croydon. “Usually this isn’t a place that’s all that extreme. I hope we soon get back to what we do best, just help producers to succeed.”

One of Wilde’s first hires as commissioner was Bradie Jill, who was brought in to replace Jack Wilbur, the veteran public information officer who had chosen to retire, quite coincidentally, at precisely the same time the virus was beginning to take hold.

He told her what to expect, she readily attests.

“Jack had gotten a taste of it, and he warned me as he went out the door,” she says. “He’s a hobby farmer and he’s up in Davis County now, just hobby-farming his heart out while all this is going on. I call him from time to time, just to check in, and to say, ‘How dare you, Jack!”

Still and all, “I’m glad I took the job,” says Bradie Jill good-naturedly. “It’s been really consuming, and I feel like everyone’s stressed, but it hasn’t been dull. And luckily, the issues we’ve had to handle aren’t going to end the world.”