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Farmers feeding Utah; and vice versa

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Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson, left, and Matt Hargreaves, the bureau’s vice president in charge of communications.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — This Friday afternoon, several semitrailers will roll into Western Park in Vernal and open their doors. They will be loaded with what Ron Gibson calls “Sunday dinner food”: fresh beef, potatoes, sweet corn, onions and mushrooms not long out of the ground, milk not long out of the cow, eggs not long out of the chicken, cheese, apples and so forth. No canned goods. No artificial ingredients.

The event is the fourth in an ongoing series called “Farmers Feeding Utah,” a charitable aid program that began, like a lot of things in the year 2020, due to a virus tinier than a grain of sand that ignited what Gibson further calls “the perfect storm of chaos.”

* * *

Ron Gibson is president of the Utah Farm Bureau, a statewide nonprofit that has been looking out for farmers for over 100 years. Six months ago, when the coronavirus shut things down faster than a Wyoming blizzard, Gibson went on Rod Arquette’s radio show to talk about the awful position farmers suddenly found themselves in.

The heart of the problem, he explained, could be traced back to us modern Americans wanting someone else to make dinner.

Not only don’t we kill what we eat anymore, we don’t cook it either.

And who can blame us? Going out to eat can be as cheap as staying home, and a lot less messy, especially at fast-food restaurants. It’s why a full 50% of food produced by U.S. farmers bypasses the grocery store entirely and goes directly to restaurants, amusement parks, shopping malls, schools, sporting and other entertainment events, cruise lines, etc.

For some foods, the vast majority goes to food service; 70% of all lamb raised, for instance, and huge percentages of mushrooms and onions and expensive cuts of meat.

The pandemic didn’t stop food production one iota, but it crippled the distribution system something fierce. Suddenly, with half of those who buy from them sidelined, farmers were sitting on food — crops and animals — that had nowhere to go. And worse yet, nobody to pay for it.

After spelling all this out on the radio show, Gibson was at lunch with his wife, trying to shake off the depression he was feeling for his fellow farmers, when his cellphone rang. A man named David Brown was calling. Brown had heard the show. He was not a farmer, was not wealthy, and didn’t know Gibson from Adam. But he did eat and therefore had a soft spot for farmers. He wanted to know how he could help.

He suggested launching a GoFundMe campaign on social media to help tide the farmers over.

The idea didn’t resonate with Gibson — he knows farmers, he is one himself, and figured that outright charity wasn’t going to appeal to their proud, independent nature — but the sentiment did.

Over the weekend, spurred by that phone call from a man who just wanted to be of assistance, the Farm Bureau president came up with a little different plan:

“I had the thought,” he recalls, “what if instead of GoFundMe we could figure out a way to raise money so we could buy products from our producers in the state and give that food to the people that are food insecure? Maybe that would be an idea that the farmers would accept.”

Thus was Farmers Feeding Utah born. No sooner did Matt Hargreaves, the Farm Bureau’s vice president in charge of communications, get the word out that donations were being accepted than money began pouring in to FarmersFeedingUtah.org: $200,000 within the first two weeks — at an average donation size of $100.

“The cool part about this is we hit a chord with real people,” says Gibson.

And the farmers? Some of whom were on the brink of deciding whether to shut ’er down? Yeah, they could live with this.

It hasn’t solved everyone’s problems by a long shot, but it’s solved a few of them. Take the lamb issue, for example. The very first Farmers Feeding Utah event took 605 live sheep that weren’t going anywhere because the market had dried up and shipped them to the Navajo Nation to be distributed among families hit hard by the coronavirus.

Gibson saw tears in the sheep ranchers’ eyes when they put the animals on the trucks and tears in the eyes of the recipients who took the animals out of the trucks in Monument Valley. And they were not sad tears on either side.

That was in May. Since then there have been two more major events, one in Cache Valley and one on the west side of Salt Lake City. To date, more than 500,000 pounds of fresh farm food (retail value: in excess of $600,000) has been distributed to hundreds of families. This Friday’s giveaway in Vernal will add even more.

Is the problem going away? Somewhat, says Gibson, as more restaurants, schools, amusement parks, etc. open, at least partially.

But it’s going to take awhile.

“We built an entire economy on ‘We guarantee you’re going to go out to dinner four times this week or whatever it is,’” he says. “Overnight, that system became a mess. It’s getting better as time goes on. But I don’t think this program ever goes away, actually. There’s a lot of need out there. It’s opened our eyes to that.”

One thing he knows for sure is that when the pandemic is over and social distancing is a thing of the past, he’s going to invite the man who listened to the radio show and called him afterward to the next Utah Farm Bureau convention.

“I’ve never met David Brown in person,” he says. “But I want to meet him. I’d like to give him an award.”

For just wanting to help.