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Drought, tariffs and wildfires create challenging season for Utah farmers

By Jacob Klopfenstein, | Posted - Oct. 4, 2018 at 9:42 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s no secret that international trade disputes have had adverse impacts on farmers this year.

Combine that with a devastating wildfire season and widespread drought in Utah, and farmers in the state say it’s been a perfect storm and a very challenging year.

Farmers have already been stressed because the agriculture economy is poor right now, with growers unable to fetch good prices for their commodities, Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson said.

“So you’re already stressed because your crops are not worth very much, and you don’t get any water going, and it is a sad situation,” Gibson said. “And then the fires start.”

The Trump administration hasn’t levied any tariffs on agricultural goods produced in the U.S. But Chinese tariffs on pork, fruit, alfalfa, oilseed, grain and other products are thought to be in retaliation to Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods.

China’s restrictions on imported American goods have hit farmers in Utah hard, Gibson said.

“There’s basically no agriculture product that doesn’t have a tariff on it,” he said.

Gibson, who operates a 1,500-acre dairy farm near Ogden, said reservoirs in the northern part of the state had enough water for farmers this year. But in other parts of the state, farmers have been out of water for months, he said.

Before this week, some areas of Sanpete County hadn’t seen a drop of rain since early June, Gibson said. When he opened the ground earlier this spring, he said he had never seen ground so dry.

“When you’re trying to grow stuff and you don’t have a raindrop for four months, that’s a problem,” he said.

In a somewhat ironic twist, some farmers now have been unable to get out into their fields due to the recent rain, Gibson said. Weather finally hit Utah this week, but some farmers, including Gibson, have been scrambling in between rainstorms to harvest their crops before it’s too late.

The state needs the rain now, but what’s more important is that Utah has a good winter with lots of snow in the mountains, Gibson said. If the snowpack is lacking next spring, farmers won’t be able to grow anything.

Farmers are doing everything they can to conserve water, including using lots of new technologies, Gibson said. But other people in the community need to do their part, as well.

“We have to find ways to consume water and try to make sure we’re using it in the best place we can,” he said.

The wildfires that have decimated forests in Utah, Sanpete and Box Elder counties and beyond make it difficult for people with grazing animals to feed their livestock, Gibson said.

The U.S. Forest Service has worked very hard to find new areas and grant new permits for ranchers, but they can’t extend that to everyone, Gibson said. When ranchers can’t move their stock to forests to graze, they’re forced to buy livestock feed, which can add up, he added.

After wildfires, forests can take three years or more to rehabilitate and be suitable for livestock grazing again, Gibson said.

“These fires are so devastating because not only does it hurt us this year, but if you have to buy feed for three years for your livestock, you’re probably not going to have them anymore,” Gibson said. “So it really is a challenge.”

Forests and other public lands need to be managed correctly in order to avoid such situations, he added.

Above all, Gibson said people should do what they can to support local farmers and ranchers. People can do that by seeking out Utah-made products in the grocery store, he said.

Agriculture is an important part of Utah’s culture that should be preserved, Gibson said.

“What we really need to do in our state is we need to decide how important local agriculture is to this state,” Gibson said. “If it’s important, then we have to figure out ways we can sustain local agriculture. … As a state, we need to support our local farmers everywhere that we can.”

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