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Utah seeks to preserve farmland from the demands of development

Farmland development
Posted at 4:54 PM, Oct 03, 2021

SMITHFIELD, Utah — Jon Meikle has farmed in the Cache Valley for his entire life.

From his land looking across the valley, there are crops and cattle. But in the distance, new developments are going in.

"It’s painful to see a productive piece of ag land go under," he said in an interview with FOX 13. "There are other places where we could guide development, but we seem to be unwilling to accomplish that."

Meikle estimates that he loses as much as 50 acres of farmland to lease each year. Urban encroachment of farmland is something that Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food has become increasingly concerned about.

"With people moving in, people staying in the state to work, our economy booming the way it is, we see a lot of need for housing," said state agriculture commissioner Craig Buttars.

It's a product of Utah's booming times. There's increased demand for housing and that land has to come from somewhere, Buttars said.

"We’re hearing stories of producers who are just ready to sell and develop their properties, especially along the Wasatch Front," he told FOX 13.

According to figures kept by Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food, the number of farms has been fluctuating since 2010. As of 2020, there were 18,409 farms of various sizes across Utah. The size of those farms has been steadily shrinking.

A report by Utah State University released last year found that since 2012, the number of farms increased 2.1% and their land value jumped by 19.6%. But the size of the farm shrunk by 3.7% to 587 acres (down from 609 in 2012).

Utah's five most urban counties (Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Washington) make up 6% of the state's total farmland. However, they make up 30% of the state's farms and produce nearly 32% of the state's total cash crop receipts. That's important because it keeps the prices of foods lower, Buttars said.

"It’s a very important issue where we need to have food production close to our cities, our urban areas," the agriculture commissioner — who is also a farmer in Cache County — said.

Recently, state agriculture officials have prioritized preservation of farmland. But as land values rise, small family farms do get pushed out. Meikle said he has faced pressure to sell his own land.

"Farmland is no longer farmland," he said. "It’s become a commodity. And people get rich playing with that commodity. As a result of that we have a diminishment of our inheritable ag land which people don’t realize is that six inches of crust on the earth sustains all of us."

Cache County is currently experiencing the state's lowest unemployment rate at 1.7% and government officials are keenly aware of the pressure on farmland. The county has been discussing protection of agricultural areas and balancing it with the demands that come with growth.

"We’re causing the very strain that we’re uneasy about," said Shawn Milne, Cache County's Economic Development Director.

Cache County is currently in the middle of formulating its master plan, which will help guide communities with planning and zoning for at least the next 20 years.

"We implore everybody — now is the time to give your two cents on how you’d like your county and city leaders to develop over the next 10 and 20 years," Milne said. "Now is the time to give your voice and input to ensure we keep the things we want kept while acknowledging we’ve got to grow."

Milne said the county is also exploring agriculture preservation measures.

"It identifies to property owners, which might be an aging family farm right now, who’s considering 'Should I sell out? Should I provide this land for one final crop of homes?' Or is there some sort of cultural protection in place, it might be an ag zone, changing certain land uses that allow us to go from livestock production to something like cannabis or grapes for a winery which are real topics here," he said.

Diversification of crops is something that some farmers like Meikle have taken up. His family has turned a historic barn into a wedding venue and started to grow wine-making grapes on their property.

"It’s a change from our normal cropping operation," he said.

Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food also encourages farmers to consider "agricultural tourism," where they host people on their farmland for events like corn mazes and harvest festivals so people can see where their food comes from and why preservation is important.

Buttars also called for the legislature to step up to provide funding to help with conservation easements to preserve open spaces. Some ideas include purchasing the land to preserve it as an agricultural space.

"Do we value ag land and, if we do, do we value it enough to use our own public funding to purchase those development rights from the farmer?" said Buttars.

But the commissioner also acknowledged that farmers have every right to sell their property and cash out, especially if others in the family have no interest in keeping the farm going.

"We’re not going to go tell a farmer how he sells his property, who he sells his property to," he said.

Milne said he believes there can be a balance.

"We can have a successful blend of having some open spaces and keeping our farms active and alive while still acknowledging we need growth for the vitality of our economy and the vibrancy of our community," he said.

Meikle believes it may be too late in Cache County, as development continues to eat up farmland. He said people should be talking to their elected officials about what kind of growth people want to see.

"I think people... need to ask themselves some serious questions of where is this all taking us?" he said. "When this is covered in houses, is that more attractive than it is now? Or do we like it the way it is now? Is this an asset that blesses society?"