It's no secret that farmers have had rough times in recent years. Many family farms have been foreclosed by banks. Yet too few people understand the vital role played by farmers in the nation's economy, or that agriculture is America's largest industry, making up 20 percent of the gross national product.

Utah farmers, who are taking part in National Agriculture Week this week, are just as pivotal in the state's economy, with 20,000 working directly in agriculture and another 56,000 employed in related industries.The value from Utah agriculture is heavily concentrated in cattle and dairy products. Production of vegetables has declined, although onions and potatoes hold promise for bigger markets.

Utah farmers are efficient. Per acre output of alfalfa has increased 80 percent since 1940. Cows produce an average of 13,000 pounds of milk a year, double the figure for 1950. Chickens lay an average of 250 eggs per year, up from 216 in 1976.

Despite their efficiency, all is not rosy. Utah still imports seven times as much agricultural products as it exports. And farmers only get a small percentage of the price paid for most farm products. The rest goes for marketing and other kinds of production. As a result, profits are slim at best.

This has led to more borrowing against the farm equity the same practice that led to such economic disasters in the Midwest the past couple of years. The average farm debt is $100,000, yet half the farms in the state are less than 50 acres in size and produce an annual income of less than $5,000. As farm land values shrink, as they have been doing, this debt becomes critical.

What this means is that most farmers or members of their families now hold off-farm jobs.

Where all this will end is unclear. Probably in higher food prices for one thing. But Utah cannot afford to have agriculture collapse in the state; too much depends on it.

At the very least, Utahns need to understand the significant role that agriculture plays in the state, and how much they should respect the dwindling numbers of often-overlooked neighbors who still work the land.