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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) -- The first official campaign meet-up for the Utah gubernatorial candidates was more panel discussion than debate as Jon Huntsman Jr. and Scott Matheson Jr. fielded questions from members of the Utah Farm Bureau on Friday.
Not surprisingly, Matheson and Huntsman agreed that agriculture is an integral part of the state economy that needs support through careful management of water and land resources. They also agreed the Central Utah Project has been good for farmers and ranchers.
In fact, they mostly agreed on every question the Farm Bureau tossed them in the hour-long presentation, largely because there wasn't much of a partisan nature in the questions, Matheson said.
"I didn't see a lot of daylight (between us) today," he said.
The Farm Bureau held its annual midyear meeting Friday in Park City, and wanted to know what the candidates thought about how to include agriculture in the state's economic development plans, how to balance demands on scarce water resources in a time of drought, how to deal with competing interests on federal lands and whether they supported the state's ballot initiative process in dealing with open space protection.
The latter question had to do with an effort by Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air and Quality Growth, whose members collected well above the needed 76,000 petition signatures statewide to get the bond measure on the ballot, but failed to meet the requirement that they have signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in 26 of the 29 Senate districts. They had enough signatures in 24 of the districts.
Petition supporters said they will appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.
Huntsman and Matheson both said they support funding state open-space purchases. Both acknowledged that initiatives are part of the state constitution, but neither thought that a recent law tightening the process was too harsh given the experience of states where initiatives have virtually overwhelmed the legislative process.
"I would never want us to become a California or an Oregon," said Huntsman.
The two candidates also agreed on the need for greater water conservation efforts -- only Nevada uses more water per capita than Utah. They also favor a proposal to build a pipeline from Lake Mead to Washington County, where population growth and economic development are outstripping water supply.
For all the candidates' talk of the viability of Utah agriculture and its place in the state's culture, small family farms are dying and the sector accounts for barely 1 percent of the state's economy.
The federal 2002 Census of Agriculture counted 15,282 farms in Utah averaging 768 acres in size. That year, farmers and ranchers sold $1.1 billion in products, for an average of $73,000 per farm.
Averages aside, 2.5 percent of Utah's farms accounted for 63 percent of the sales; 48 percent of the farms had sales of less than $2,500, the census found. And increasingly, young people are forgoing their parents' farm lives: the average age of a farm or ranch's principal operator was 55.
Margo Wilde, who chairs the Farm Bureau's Women's Committee, said she hoped Huntsman and Matheson would listen up to the concerns of Utah's agricultural sector.
Her family's Morgan County sheep operation depends on government leaders' dedication to better land and water management. "If we don't start getting help and relief for our farms, we're going to lose everything we have," she said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)