Utah farmers fended off the worst of agriculture's decline over the past decade or more by being conservative about going into debt to finance their operations, Utah Agricultural Commissioner Cap Ferry said Monday.

Celebrating National Agriculture Week at Wheeler Historic Farm, Ferry said agriculture is Utah's most important business "an $8.6 billion industry that employs 20 percent of Utah's workers."Ferry admired the turn-of-the-century atmosphere at the 75-acre farm, which boasts vegetable gardens, milk cows, horses and just about all the farm animals that Utah farmers might have had in 1900.

Talking with farm curator and director A. Glen Humpherys, Ferry said Utah has not suffered as much as many other states from the farm slump that started in the late 1970s and is barely over.

Besides being careful about debt, he said, "Utahns are used to hard times and have been better able to rebound from the farm depression."

He said the area hardest hit by the farm crunch has been the area most dependent in the past on government programs and subsidies the American wheat belt.

Considering that most of (Utah's) population lives in an area from Provo to Ogden, its farmers continue to produce an abundance of food, primarily through irrigation methods, Humpherys said.

"Water is a vital commodity in Utah, which, despite its great record of agricultural production, is the second driest state in the nation."

Water rights, he said, are a vital part of Utah's agriculture, and every bit of water in the state is owned by someone. Water rights often date back to the mid-1800s when the state was settled.

Ferry said farmers in Utah's pioneer days were only able to handle 25 or 30 acres of irrigated land, and most farms tended to be small. A homestead in 1860 was 80 acres. Then, by 1900, when farms became more mechanized, the homestead expanded to 160 acres. Homesteaders had to live on their land and improve it for several years before they could own it, Humpherys said.

Early farmers were able to feed themselves and their families with little left over. By the turn of the century, using more modern farm equipment but still drawn by horses they were able to feed themselves and perhaps 15 to 20 others.

Today, Ferry said, the American farmer is able to feed himself and 76 others and has become the food and fiber provider for the world.

Not only have farms changed in size and in the way they are operated, but the number of farmers in America has shrunk through the years. In 1900, it was estimated that 20 million people, or most Americans, lived on farms.

In 1988, only 5 million Americans, or about 2 percent of the population, live on farms.

What this has done, Ferry and Humpherys agreed, is to divorce most Americans from farming. Most people don't know where food and fiber come from. The idea that milk comes from a carton in a grocery store or that meat comes from a counter in a supermarket are all too prevalent, they said.

The Wheeler Farm, an educational museum operated by the Salt Lake County Recreation and Parks Department, is trying to remedy these misconceptions and annually hosts more than 20,000 students.

Other programs, such as Agriculture in the Classroom, which is sponsored by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Utah State University's Cooperative Extension Program, help school teachers teach their students about farming.

Despite the rapid growth of urban areas in Utah and the spread of concrete and asphalt and the demise of many farms to subdivisions and freeways, Ferry said, "there are more acres under cultivation in Utah today than there were a decade ago.

"Farming is becoming bigger and more important in Utah every day. We are exporting more products all the time, especially to countries abroad, and, as our population increases, this only provide a bigger market for our farm products.

"Utah has a great farm future," he said.