The Ag effect; Farming in Utah faces drastic changes.
The number of farms in Utah dropped by 100 in 2006 according to the Economic Research Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. Owners of the remaining 15,100 Utah farms face dramatic changes, but, so far, the mostly family-owned farms are hanging onto their traditional lifestyle no matter what obstacles are hurled their way.
The outlook for Utah agriculture is complex. Data analysts predict continued structural changes at the farm level, higher production costs, an unstable labor force, exciting technological innovations that can boost production efficiency, subdivision and commercial encroachment, supply management challenges and consumer demand for specialty products.
Kohler, who is serving as chairman of the Utah Dairy Council, remembers 20 years ago when the Heber Valley was home to as many as 30 dairy farms. Now, due to development, there are only a half dozen dairies in the valley. With urbanization has come predictable clashes between homeowners, many of whom ironically moved to the rural area to enjoy open space but now complain about the smell of manure, and farmers who see themselves as the stewards of the land. "Farmers have spent a lot of time educating the public, and now some members of the public are waking up to the reality that farms are the reason there is open space. Now homeowners are asking how they can help us keep our farms viable," said Kohler. "Open space is maintained by agriculture. If we don't protect farms, we will lose open space and Utah's rural life."
Managing issues and educating the public and policy makers are part of the package for farmers these days, ranking in importance with tilling fields and providing veterinarian services for their herds. "If we don't handle issues management, we will go out of business," says Mark Gibbons, a Lewiston dairy producer who is serving as president of the Dairy Producers of Utah, an organization focused on lobbying and environmental work. Gibbons and other farmers travel to Utah's capitol and Washington, D.C. several times a year to teach elected officials about agricultural issues.
Rising Production Costs
"One of the biggest changes in recent years is the rising costs of feed and fuel," said Gibbons during a phone interview held while he was in Orlando, Florida representing Utah producers at a national milk producers' conference. The price of corn in particular is driving the price of feed up due to the booming ethanol market. As with any business, rising production costs cut into profits, bringing net farm income down.
In its Utah Crop Progress and Condition Report dated November 19, 2007, the Utah Field Office of the USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service writes: "Cache County reports that the low market price for steers has forced producers to hold on to their livestock a little longer in hopes that the price will go up before the end of the year. Producers are becoming more frustrated with the continual price increase for feed and the continual price decline for cattle."
Increasing production costs eventually have to be passed along to the consumer, but it's a tricky issue. "The consumer doesn't complain that candy bars and cheaply produced soda pop used to cost only a nickel, but when milk prices go up even a few cents, consumers complain," said Kohler.
Labor Pool Drained
To staff Utah's farms, Gibbons supports a guest worker program. "Today's young people don't want to do hard labor," he says. "There are more attractive jobs today than milking cows. We need a stable and adequate labor force provided through a guest worker program." Gibbons points out that the public often doesn't realize that farmers pay $200,000 or more for their equipment. "No business would want a temporary worker with a visa about to expire or with incomplete training running machinery that expensive."
Aging poses another challenge for farm labor. According to an ERS fact sheet, the average age of principal farm operators in Utah is 55. Who will head up the family farm when the current generation retires? It may not be the next generation.
"Many growers and producers are telling their children to leave farming because it's so difficult to earn a living now," said Kohler.
Farm Sizes are Changing
Mega farms are a continuing trend. Small family farms, defined by annual sales of less than $250,000, comprised 90 percent of U.S. farms in 2004. However, at 10 percent, the large-scale family farms and large non-family farms produce the largest share of agricultural output according to the USDA. For the most part, large-scale farms are more economically viable than small farms, says the ERS. Small farms rely on non-farm income for the majority of their livelihood.
The shift in farm size is especially acute for dairy farmers where large farms realize economies of scale in dairy production with lower costs. The number of dairy farms with fewer than 200 cows is shrinking while the number of large operations with 2,000 or more cows doubled between 2000 and 2006. On the down side, large farms concentrate more animals in corrals with less grazing causing animal waste from manure to pile up on a smaller piece of land, resulting in increased pollution.
The trend toward larger farms as well as limited infrastructure support from government and business is causing angst for Utah farmers who watch with dismay as the aggressive Idaho agriculture industry continues to overtake the region's fresh milk market. In the past 10 years, Idaho has moved from the ninth largest milk producing state to the fourth.
"It's very frustrating to Utah farmers that Utah kids are drinking milk in our schools that was bottled at a plant in Idaho. Utah needs single sized bottling facilities. There is so much more Utah farmers could do with more support from government, businesses, and the public," said Kohler who, in addition to wanting more political support, wishes Utahns would request that their grocery stores and restaurants use Utah products rather than buying and shipping in agricultural products from out of state.
Technological innovations are the bright spot in agricultural trends. Breakthroughs have created opportunities for new consumer-pleasing products and affordable farm devices that boost efficiency. The ability to extract protein from milk has enhanced exports in the world market. Now milk protein is used in body building and sports replenishing drinks. Other uses for powdered forms of milk have also increased exports. In the future, producers expect to see nutraceuticals added to milk so consumers can drink their vitamins and omega 3 supplements.
On the production side, new low-cost, entry-level GPS systems mean that even small farmers can afford global positioning auto-pilot steering systems that help with accuracy when spraying and planting. Other innovations include a field water alarm, a digitally integrated irrigation product that alerts the owner by radio or cell phone when water is flowing into his field or has reached an optimal point. Other devices provide high-speed, continuous operation precision soil sampling and software that collects, relays, and processes data on soil, water and climate for better field management.
"Utah agriculture is a significant economic contributor, especially by region," says Bruce Godfrey, Utah State University economics professor. "In rural counties, outside of the Wasatch Front, in Box Elder and Richfield for example, agriculture is a major economic contributor. It's a mainstay in rural counties."
The fact is when farms are doing well, farmers buy new equipment and implements, refurbish existing structures and build new structures. The muliplier effect supports the community's economic base overall.
Would you like to help preserve Utah farms and the rural way of life? Next time you are in a grocery store or at a restaurant, ask for Utah produce, dairy and animal products. If the retailer doesn't provide Utah products, go to a store or restaurant that does. The consumer can truly make a difference. To learn more about the importance of buying Utah products, visit Utah's Own at www.utahsown.org. The site includes a list of Utah producers, farmers markets, and restaurants that support the importance of buying locally.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2008|
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