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Dirt to Dinner Plate: Why Buying Local Matters

Commissioner Kerry Gibson

Who’s ready to eat local? If you are like me – and most of you are – I’m always going to support Utah producers and of course love the freshness and quality only they can give us.

So, I’m extra excited to see Eat Local Food Week is just around the corner, September 7-14. I hope you will join me as we indulge while paying homage to the hard work of our farmers and ranchers. Each year their organization and precise execution, in concert with what Mother Nature grants, are what fuel our day-to-day lives.

And this time of year, local produce coming into farmers markets, roadside stands, u-pick operations, and more are at their peak of freshness and quality. Farm-fresh is guaranteed to punctuate those final summer weekend barbecues and outings you have planned.

It’s no secret that buying locally-produced food is on the rise across America, particularly our state. Ask any Utahn on the street where they would rather get their peaches from, Utah or elsewhere and they’ll take the former almost every time – even though states like California, Georgia, and South Carolina produce far more.

Why is that? We can talk about supporting our local economy or that the quality and freshness exceed out-of-state imports if you like. That’s all true. In fact, a recent study showed that if everyone in Utah spent just 10 percent more on local, it would add $1.3 Billion to our state’s economy. And science has taught us that there’s a degradation in quality and nutrients the longer it takes for food to go from farm to table.

But I believe it goes deeper. While the digital age has improved lives it’s also created an unfortunate divide. I believe we are longing for a more personal connection with the people we cherish and the food we eat – and they quite often go hand in hand.

Those connections are all about trust and awareness. Humans hunger for knowledge as much as food, so it’s no surprise we want to know where our food comes from. We also like to Google things about how our food is produced – the types of gardens and treatments they are given. But ultimately we seek sources with simpler and shorter distribution points – fewer touches from dirt to dinner plate.

Utahns are communicating that with their wallets and producers are responding. While we continue to see a decline in Utah’s total farming acres, there’s an upswing in the number of farms – pointing to an increase in smaller urban farms that are more directly connected to consumers. We also saw a sharp increase in organic farm production, producing $9.1 million in 2012 to $30.8 million in 2017.

Yes, local is where it’s at. It’s where I’m at and many of you as well. It’s why the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has invested so much in our Utah’s Own branding campaign. It’s why we will continue to push for and support local food and its producers.

For those that haven’t been nudged enough yet, consider Eat Local Week your special invite to join us. We’d love to have you aboard, as would our wonderful producers. Check out some of the festivities organized by Urban Food Connections of Utah by visiting slcfarmersmarket.org, or go to our Utah’s Own website to learn more about local food producers and markets statewide at utahsown.org/markets

 

Circling the Wagons – That’s the Utah Way

Commissioner Kerry Gibson

As September is National Suicide Awareness Month, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) is partnering with the Cattleman’s Association, USU Extension, and other industry organizations to create a stronger connection between existing programs and resources available for agriculture producers in crisis.

Together, we are circling the wagons around all who are experiencing a sense of hopelessness. Regardless of one’s station in life, profession, or religious preference, suicide is far too frequent in Utah. When times get tough, the lives of every citizen matter and far too many of our precious family, friends, and neighbors are not feeling that. I have seen it first-hand in my own life and I know many of you have as well.

When it comes to agriculture, there are no shortages of challenges for farmers and ranchers between access to market issues, weather, pests and diseases, regulatory changes, and trade policy. According to the latest USDA Agriculture Census, 56% of US farmers report a net loss in cash income on their farms. But worse than that, in Utah, that number rises to 65%.

One of my most important messages and efforts as Commissioner will be to ensure we are doing more to love and care for one another as communities. We must do more to extend resources and programs out to the farmers and ranchers experiencing pressures that lead to hopelessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

In Proverbs 27:23 it states, “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds.” Through our partnerships and outreach efforts, we are circling our wagons around those who need it most and encourage you to join us.  Be a listener, an encouraging, and a helping hand as there is no shortage of work that can be done here.

I’m optimistic that if we can all do a little more, in close coordination with our available resources and professional partners, that we can turn this trend around. It’s we do things here – it’s the Utah way.

Please allow me to share below some of the resources available in Utah right now that we have posted below. If you would like to join our circle of wagons to suggest additional resources, please call me personally at 801-538-7100.

  • Generalized behavioral health resources available to all citizens through county health departments, and numerous private behavioral health specialists;
  • Religious community programs of support and counseling, along with their directives to locate qualified licensed counseling for those seeking help;
  • Farmerhealth.org, an international organization dedicated to helping farmers with all kinds of health issues, including behavioral health;
  • 2018 Farm Bill allocated $10 million for five years to create a Farm and Ranch Assistance Network Program in four regions of the country;
  • The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has two financial assistance programs available to farmers and ranchers to improve the economic viability of their operations: the Agriculture Resource Development Loan Program (ARDL), and the Rural Rehabilitation Loan fund;
  • FarmAid.org, a national organization that is equipped to helping farmers who are struggling with behavioral health issues and more at 800-FARM-AID; and
  • Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition has a hotline and can direct to additional resources at 800-273-TALK (8255).

A Most Unusual Community Garden

Don’t be surprised some evening if, in a quiet Logan neighborhood on a back vacant lot between homes, you hear the excitement of Burmese children playing as they gather with parents and grandparents to tend their community garden plots, tell stories, play and dine together.

Faced with untold persecutions in their home countries, these first-generation Logan-ites have endured a lot to reach the Cache Valley. Upon entering refugee camps, they had to patiently wait several years of interviewing and vetting before making their way to the US and eventually Utah. Those who made it represent a class of only one percent who have done so.

There are an estimated 500 to 600 refugees from Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia who ended up settling in the neighboring towns of Logan, Hyrum and Nibley. Not long after their arrival in 2011 community leaders and volunteers began work to create the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection (CRIC) an adjustment resource center for newcomers to rebuild their lives.

In the years that have followed, CRIC has been instrumental in providing walk-in support, citizenship and driver’s license study groups, back-to-school drives, potlucks and other events. But most noteworthy here is the creation of the community garden in 2017.

For about a year CRIC was able to help obtain a short lease on a garden plot in Smithfield. However, the distance made participation difficult for the refugees. So, in 2017, CRIC officials asked about a lease on a plot of land in a neighborhood near where many of the refugees were living, making access simple. The landowner agreed and with some donations and a grant from Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) through NRCS, engineering and water improvement projects were arranged.

“The first year before the irrigation system was installed they were getting water from a ditch with buckets,” says Crista Sorenson, Cache Refugee Immigration Garden Coordinator and USU Extension Incubator Farm Manager. “But now, with this new system, we are educating them about overwatering as it only takes about 15 minutes to saturate their plots and significantly increase their production.”

The garden has grown in terms of interest as well, attracting about a dozen families when it started to this year’s 29 plots and 32 gardeners. But it’s also become more than just a garden, each night for several hours entire Burmese families gather and the whole area becomes erupts with the sounds and smells of music, laughter, and open-flame cooking.

Sorenson said that presently the gardeners are getting acclimated to what grows well in the shortened Cache Valley growing season, and learning about local foods that grow best. However, she hopes to introduce them to concepts of marketing their goods at the Cache Valley Farmer’s Market, CSAs, and roadside stand opportunities in the years ahead.

“You will see quite a diversity of foods – things you will not see in our supermarkets. If it’s from their home country and they can grow it, they will. However, some of their tropical favorites from the homeland probably aren’t going to happen,” Crista laughs.

“This project is truly what Utah is about,” said an emotional Kerry Gibson, commissioner of UDAF. “We take care of our own, but we also look out for our neighbors – even those from far off lands. The refugees in Logan, Salt Lake City and other places represent a wonderful opportunity for us to blend our cultures of agriculture and community together as one people under God.”

UDAF Welcomes Johnson to Executive Team

Thou shalt not steal is among the big 10, but when it comes to assembling a talented team, new Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Commissioner (UDAF) Kerry Gibson confesses the State’s agriculture community will be richly blessed.

That’s because UDAF recently ‘stole’ the talents of Redge Johnson from the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office (PLPCO) to serve as director of Strategic Initiatives. At UDAF he will be overseeing performance measures, mission direction, planning with State, local and federal agencies, among other things.

“Redge has been a powerful voice in the public land policy arena for PLPCO and I am certain his presence will be missed,” said Gibson. “However, his deep background in ranching and agricultural redevelopment, coupled with more recent work in land and resource management will be invaluable as we work with our industry producers and federal partners to facilitate sound public policy.”

Redge Johnson

Johnson is a native of Utah and brings extensive experience in agriculture, planning and leadership to UDAF. His family has been in the ranching industry since the 1800’s in Southern Utah, mostly Wayne County and Sevier County. Johnson grew up helping his family operate the Cedar Livestock Market for more than 20 years, adding an education in the market side of animal production.

He also worked in the commercial agriculture real estate industry for over 20 years, with a focus on marketing farms and ranches. During this time he was a principal in over 35 projects that ‘flipped’ farms, ranches and recreation properties. Through this experience, he understands many of the challenges that face our agriculture producers and rural economies.

Most recently, Johnson directed the creation and implementation of numerous programs. He organized, motivated and assisted all of Utah’s 29 counties to create County Resource Management Plans. These plans meticulously coordinated 28 natural resource-related topics including grazing, water rights, forest and rangeland Management, oil, gas and mining activities, access to public lands and socio-economic analysis of multiple-use lands.

The County plans were then used as the basis for the Utah State Resource Management Plan he authored and implemented. These plans are used today to facilitate coordination and cooperating agency regulations with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“I’ve worked very hard to bridge communications, planning, and execution activities among federal officials and the agriculture community my entire career,” said Johnson. “So in every respect, this new opportunity to serve under Commissioner Gibson and the state’s agriculture producers is something I am very excited about and confident in.”

The Governor’s Office also tasked Johnson with leading the Grazing Resolution Group. This effort was a combination of state agencies brought together to resolve challenges and promote opportunities for Utah grazers. The Governor’s Office, Attorney General Office, Department of Agriculture and Food, Department of Natural Resources, congressional staff and local leaders joined together to find and implement solutions with federal partners.

The team organized hundreds of meetings across Utah to hear the concerns of grazers then met with relevant agencies to resolve conflicts or promote opportunities. The efforts of the team created a direct benefit to local producers and rural economies, along with better relations between state and federal partners.

The Railroad and Utah Agriculture

On May 10, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant brought the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads together in Promontory, Utah. The Transcontinental Railroad was the culmination of decades of American ingenuity and grit. For many observers, the railroad was the embodiment of the American dream.

A quarter-century before the golden spike was driven in the ground, Ralph Waldo Emerson envisioned what the railroad might mean for American life. He described railroads as “a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.”

With the strike of President Grant’s hammer, quiet little farm towns throughout Utah were instantly connected to global markets. The truth of Emerson’s words are evidenced by the monumental changes Utah’s agriculture and food industry experienced.

With the newly completed railroad, it became profitable to move factories nearer raw materials and stimulated food manufacturing activity throughout the state. Where once Utah’s farmers and ranchers sold their goods locally, they now could access a variety of markets and receive higher prices for their products.

The railroad took products grown and manufactured in Utah to consumers across the country and around the world. Utah wheat was shipped either as grain or as flour to California and the southern states. Sugar beets were shipped to processing facilities throughout the state on rail lines built exclusively for that purpose. The finished sugar was then shipped to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest on railcars.

Utah’s dairymen saw immense profits as they sold condensed milk and other dairy products to consumers in railroad towns throughout the U.S. beef, pork, and lamb raised and processed in Utah could now be found on dinner tables across the country.

Most of Utah’s vegetables and some of its fruits were grown to support the state’s burgeoning canning industry, centered mostly in Weber, Davis, and other counties along the Wasatch Front.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Utah’s agriculture and food industry has been living the American dream for the last 150 years in large part due to the monumental changes brought about by The Transcontinental Railroad.