LAYTON — As Utah deals with one of the worst droughts in its history, Gov. Spencer Cox wants to set the record straight about who is responsible for the water shortage.
"It's with more than a little dismay that I routinely hear from people that there's no need for them to conserve water 'because most of the water in the state is used by agriculture, and why aren't our farmers doing more?'" Cox said.
"Not only are those comments very uninformed — I might say ignorant — they also just don't understand the nature of water, the nature of food, and the nature of agriculture in our state. And so I believe it's really important that we dispel some of those myths that are out there and help people understand that nobody is being impacted more and nobody has done more to cut back on water usage in this state than our farmers," the governor said Friday, speaking to reporters under shade at a Layton farm.
Utah farms and ranches have seen water cuts between 70% and 75%, according to the governor, which is "dramatically" reducing crop yields.
"People forget, or don't realize, that food does not come from Walmart, food does not come from the grocery store. That is not where food comes from. Food comes from the men and women, the families who are growing this food, making it possible and putting food on our table," Cox said.
Agriculture trying to slash water use
Utah Department of Agriculture Commissioner Craig Buttars said the state is looking for ways to support and relieve the burden on farmers and ranchers.
Through the relatively new Water Optimization Program, the department updates flooding systems, which includes transferring water to large pivots in order to distribute water close to the ground to prevent evaporation. Last year, the program saved the state 28,000 acre-feet of water, Buttars said, which equals 9.1 billion gallons. This year, applications for the program are up 300% over last year.
"This is evidence that our farmers and ranchers are interested in conserving water and providing food and fiber in a more efficient way every day," Buttars said.
Tyson Roberts, whose family operates Roberts Family Farms where the governor and others met Friday, said the land dates back to Christopher Layton, who founded the Layton and Kaysville areas. The family has been on the land since 1847.
But now, he said his family farm and others are struggling to stay afloat.
"To say it plainly, agriculture in Utah is in survival mode right now," Roberts said.
"I believe farmers are the original conservationists. When you look back at the last 30 to 40 years, farmers are raising more foods with less inputs, with less water on less land. And this has been great, not only because of the farmers that want to do more, that want to produce more food, but also because of the science that has helped farmers," he said.
He said the alfalfa field behind him doesn't have enough irrigation water to produce a good crop, but they use "tailwater" that comes off the vegetables and is guided it to the alfalfa to try to negate feed shortages.
When asked what's kept his family in farming despite the challenges, he became emotional as he said: "There's a cliche that says it's in your blood — and it is.
"It's something that, when you're passionate about something, you want to do it; and farmers, they find a way to make it to another year," Roberts said.
Roberts said his farm doesn't have enough water to grow all the crops they normally would, resulting in 10% to 15% of their land — "really good, productive farmland" — remaining unplanted this year. On a good year, that percentage represents their profit margin.
"When I say survival mode, I mean I hope I can pay the bills this year," Roberts said.
The quality and yield of the crops they are growing is also down because they can't use a significant amount of water, he said.
On the governor's own family farm, the Coxes raise alfalfa, oat hay and other grains that they sell to other farmers and ranchers in the area. Cox said they've seen a 75% reduction in water and production capacity.
"We're very fortunate, we're a small family farm. We have other jobs for years, since my grandfather passed away from cancer at a young age, my dad realized that the farm would not support one family, let alone multiple families. And so everybody's had to have another job while we continue to work on the farm and keep that farm in production," Cox said.
"But we have many farms across the state where this is their only source of income, they create jobs across rural Utah and even here, as you can see, right in the middle of the Wasatch Front. And they rely on the sustainability of these farms and the water that is necessary to keep them going," he added.
The state is experiencing a severe hay shortage, which has led prices to double over the past few months. Ranchers graze their sheep on public or private lands, but when there's no water, the forage doesn't grow high enough to fully feed them. That means ranchers need to buy hay from other farmers, but hay is already in short demand due to the drought, according to Cox, driving the hay prices up.
Utah often gets criticized by residents for exporting some hay to China, Cox noted. But he said that's a "very, very small percentage" of hay. Out of about the roughly 2 million tons of hay produced in the state each year, 40,000 tons are exported, he said.
"What we're seeing with these increased costs, ranchers are being forced to sell off their livestock, because they don't have enough to keep them alive, so now they've got to get rid of the livestock. Some auctions are reporting a 300% increase in cattle sales," he said.
More cattle on the market drives the cost down, damaging farmers, the governor explained. The drought will compound the cost of food, hurting the state's most needy the most.
"When our farmers struggle due to drought, there's a tax on the poor," he said.
The pandemic showed that Utah needs available, locally produced food, as food coming from other countries and states can't always be relied upon. During the pandemic, Farmers Feeding Utah stepped in and helped fight hunger in the state.
Buttars urged residents to support local ranchers and farmers by buying local, visiting farmers markets and supporting roadside stands.
Utahns can also support local farmers by subscribing to the new monthly produce box Touch of Utah, available at box.farmersfeedingutah.com/.