We want it ‘locally grown’ but how much of our food actually is?
By Jan Striefel
Utahns overwhelmingly want more locally produced and consumed foods, but the fact is they’re not getting it. Public policy, climate change and population growth are all major factors affecting agriculture in the state.
“Utah residents envision feeding their families with healthy, high-quality food grown in Utah. They see an abundance of locally grown products as part of a healthy lifestyle that will improve the quality of life for them and future generations,” says Ryan Beck, a senior planner with Envision Utah.
In 2014, Envision Utah conducted the “Your Utah, Your Future” survey in which more than 50,000 respondents participated and an incredible 97 percent favored scenarios in which Utah substantially increases production in agriculture, particularly locally grown and consumed foods.
Utah agriculture is an important part of our economy as it represents approximately 15 percent of our total state output. But Utahns are actually consuming more out-of-state products and sending our own produce elsewhere. And our largest crop (alfalfa) uses huge amounts of scarce water and is either exported or used as animal feed.
In 2018, the League of Women Voters of Utah conducted a study looking at the current status of agriculture and agricultural sustainability in the state.
They interviewed individuals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, faculty and researchers from Utah State University College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, the Utah Farm Bureau, and Envision Utah. Their study found that what Utahns say they desire is only partially achieved or achievable.
Here are the facts:
Only 3% of fruits and 2% of vegetables consumed by Utahns are grown here. These are the products found in farmers markets, distributed through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms), or other farm-to-table growers, and are produced by small growers on small acreages.
In contrast, we produce 95% of grains, 134% of protein (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs), and 26% of dairy, but not all of that production is consumed by Utahns, in part due to the lack of processing facilities. We still import large quantities of processed and packaged protein from out-of-state. These commodities are generally produced on large farming and ranching operations.
Alfalfa hay is by far the largest crop grown in Utah, both in number of acres and market value. Some is used locally as food for cattle and other animals; the rest is exported. Alfalfa also uses large quantities of water, more than most food crops. One has to wonder if we are essentially exporting our scarce water when we export alfalfa.
While the average size of farms and ranches in Utah has decreased, efficiencies in farm/ranch practices have increased productivity dramatically. In fact, there is a seismic change in farming—the number of farms and ranches has increased, due in large part to growth in smaller organic farms that supply the farm-to-table outlets.
Farmers and ranchers face many challenges. Some are a consequence of climate and available resources; others result from policy and legislation.
Prime farmland is scarce; it represents only 3% of the land in Utah, and development pressures continue to eat away at what is remaining. Zoning, land use policy and law, and planning decisions rarely support the preservation of agricultural land.
Water is also scarce, and much agricultural production requires water. Utah is the second driest state in the nation, and our climate is not ideal. Not surprisingly, climate change remains the big unknown.
National immigration and visa policy and law affect the availability of a reliable labor force, particularly in the agricultural sector. Labor shortages are a central focus of the Utah Farm Bureau and its national counterpart.
Labor shortages include both short-term employment visas needed for seasonal crop production and harvest, as well as long term employment required in the dairy and animal production sectors.
Utah’s population is expected to double by 2050. So, what is the future of agriculture and agricultural sustainability in Utah? It depends. We may need to:
• Rethink how and what we eat; plant-based products are far less water intensive than animal products, and in general less resource intensive.
• Produce more fruits and vegetables in greenhouses to combat our climate restrictions, and invent other efficient, cost-effective, and healthy ways to increase food production.
• Eat more seasonally and locally grown food and reduce our reliance on imported food crops. That might mean fewer lemons and bananas, and more apples and peaches.
• Change our laws and policy to protect what little prime agricultural land we have left. That might mean stronger land use regulation and limitations/changes to individual property rights policy; and more investment in conservation easements and supportive land preservation strategies.
• Incentivize smaller producers who grow the agricultural products we consume. Perhaps with tax breaks, by supporting in-state processing facilities to reduce the related costs of transportation and other incentives to encourage new farmers to grow, produce and succeed.
• Purchase more locally grown food to support those farmers who are supplying the products we eat. Encouraging local grocery stores, school kitchens and restaurants to use locally grown products, and committing to buying locally grown food whenever possible.
Realistically, is it possible for Utah to produce all the food it needs for its residents?
Probably not because of the many limitations and environmental conditions contributing to scarce water and land, and climate. But we can certainly do better to change behavior and policy to achieve what we all want—a reliable, healthy, local food supply grown, produced and processed in Utah. ❖
Jan Striefel is a landscape architect and planner and a member of the League of Women Voters of Utah, which conducted the survey mentioned in the article.