At the 2019 Utah Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention, Utah County farmers and agricultural workers talked about issues their farms, businesses and communities face, including shrinking farmland caused by development and mental health issues in rural areas.
The convention, which was held at the Davis Conference Center in Layton and ran from Wednesday to Friday, featured breakout sessions on topics ranging from agritourism in the state to water policy to tips for how agriculturalists can engage with their legislators.
Richard Behling, a livestock farmer who serves as president of the Utah County Farm Bureau, said rapid expansion and development in Utah Valley poses a problem for farmers.
“We’re taking some of the most productive ground in the state of Utah (for farming) and planning houses,” Behling said. He added that he doesn’t have a problem with development and growth, “but we need to consider growing in before we always grow out.”
Another huge concern among farmers, and rural communities in general, is suicide and depression, according to Behling.
“Suicide is a major issue in agriculture right now,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re having a hard time paying the bills, you’ve got issues at home … and you can’t see a way out, you’ve got to have the tools to be able to figure out … how do I solve these problems without going to such extreme measures?”
Depression is particularly an issue for farmers because they prefer to not discuss their struggles, Behling said.
“Farmers don’t like to talk about their weaknesses very much,” the livestock farmer said. “We just work through our problems.”
It is also a concern in agriculture since many farms are passed down and farmers don’t want to let down their parents or grandparents, said Dave Robbins, a grower with Olson’s Greenhouse Gardens in Salem.
“Nobody wants to have a loss of life,” Robbins said. “Especially when they’re trying to provide for their family.”
Josh McMullin, a fourth generation fruit farmer at McMullin Orchards in Payson, said it is difficult to find temporary, seasonal laborers to help harvest the tart cherries, sweet cherries, apples, peaches and pears grown at the orchard between June and October.
“We simply can’t find the guys to do the work,” McMullin said, adding that the orchard relies heavily on the United States Department of Labor’s temporary non-immigrant worker H-2A program to find employees.
McMullin said competition caused by trade and over-saturation of the market have negatively impacted fruit farmers in Utah, which is the second biggest tart cherry producer in the country.
Other countries that grow tart cherries, such as Turkey, subsidize their farmers and pay shipping costs, which means cherries can be shipped from overseas for cheaper than they can be grown in the U.S., said McMullin.
“We don’t want subsidies,” McMullin said. “We just want a level playing field we can compete on.”
Positive developments in agriculture were discussed at the conference as well, such as the production of hemp that was legalized at the federal level this year.
David Politis, a marketing executive who works with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the federal legalization of hemp production serves as a tremendous economic opportunity for Utah farmers.
Industrial hemp, a strain of cannabis that doesn’t contain psychoactive components, has a variety of agricultural uses, including to produce rope, insulation and non energy-intensive alternatives to concrete.
Hemp can also be used to produce cannabidiol (CBD), which has recently been shown to treat pain, anxiety and neurological disorders such as epilepsy.
Politis said hemp production is a “huge opportunity” for the state and county, calling the plant a potential “new cash crop.”
He added that Utah’s climate is ideally suited for growing hemp, which grows best in low humidity, high elevation environments.
Reflecting on development and growth in the valley, Robbins said it is important to remember the significance of agriculture in Utah County, which he described as being one of the most diverse counties in the state in terms of what can be grown.
“It needs to be respected and treated as the treasure that it is,” said Robbins.