Utah agriculture continues to flourish despite challenges
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Despite continuing pressure from urban encroachment and the withering effects of the Great Recession, Utah's agriculture industry is growing, adding more revenue and more jobs as the economy rebounds.
A new study probing the fiscal impacts of the agriculture sector to Utah's economy in 2011 was unveiled Friday at the offices of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, where Utah State University researchers detailed the industry's contributions in multiple arenas.
Agricultural production and processing accounted for $17.5 billion in total economic output in Utah in 2011, generating 78,000 jobs and income of approximately $2.7 billion, according to the analysis. Overall, the industry constitutes 14.1 percent of the state's total output.
Study co-author Paul Jakus, an economics professor at USU, said most people tend to think of the industry in terms of growing crops and raising cattle and overlook the attendant processing sector — plants where milk is transformed into cheese or other dairy products, and meat is turned into different cuts.
Employment in food processing makes up 15 percent all manufacturing jobs in Utah, with most of them located in urbanized areas along the Wasatch Front.
In Logan, for example, the USU study shows more than 30 percent of the manufacturing jobs come from food processing, which also is strong in the Ogden-Clearfield area at 20 percent. Those jobs, the study notes, have pay that averages more than $18 per hour.
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham said farming retains an important role in Utah's modern economy, its cultural history and its future as families will continue to demand a safe, secure supply of locally produced food.
"Farming is part of our history and part of our culture," Blackham said. "When you go into the rural areas of our state, everyone likes to see a nice farm. We're excited people are growing their own gardens. There's something about getting in the dirt."
The study notes that agricultural production and processing grew by 15.1 percent from 2008 to 2011, and as markets for cattle and calves, wholesale milk and hay recovered from the Great Recession, the state's agricultural cash receipts skyrocketed by nearly 49 percent in that time period.
Dairy is Utah's strongest sector in the agricultural market, accounting for 22.5 percent of the cash receipts in 2011. Cattle comes next at 19.4 percent, followed by hay at 15.4 percent. In 2011, revenue generated statewide was up to $1.6 billion.
Blackham noted that today's farmers in Utah are more efficient and savvy than those of 20 to 30 years ago, utilizing irrigation practices and technology that saves water, reduces costs and increases output.
Farms typically have greater yields per acre, and corn production across the state is reaching new highs because of those irrigation systems that foster better performance, he said.
While farms were grown in the tradition of feeding families, that no longer holds true, according to the America Farm Bureau, citing numbers that show each farmer now feeds an estimated 155 people.
Blackham said each year brings a new set of challenges for the Utah farmer to weather.
This season's average snowpack is causing some brows to furrow in worry, he said, even as farmers are still shaking off the effects of last summer's drought.
Utah's dairy producers and turkey farmers continue to hurt because of the drought in the Midwest that escalated the price of soybean and corn. The drought also forced an early sell-off of some cattle stock, which has played out as a financial boost to cattlemen as beef prices go up.
Overall, he said, "most of our farmers had a pretty good year."
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