The price of Utah's farmlands is falling at a time when lawmakers have cut off all financing to a state fund aimed at preserving working farms and ranches.
The austerity move has knocked out the state's only source that qualifies for federal conservation monies putting more pressure on farms to sell out for development.
"We just don't have the agricultural potential that many other states do," said Kerry McBride, deputy director of the Utah Field Office for the National Agricultural Statistics Service. "When you look at Utah's weather, the soil, the climate, its elevation and our short growing season, the real value of farmland lies in its potential for development."
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham said he fears that when the U.S. economy turns around, Utah will lose more farms particularly in Utah County, the state's second-most populous county and No. 1 in all farm receipts.
The pressure already is mounting as farm values fall.
This year, Utah farm real-estate value, a measurement of all farmland and buildings, averaged $1,800 per acre, down 0.6 percent from 2010, according to an August report by the Utah Field Office for the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The report also shows that the Mountain region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming had the lowest farm real-estate value of all U.S. regions, at $923 per acre. By comparison, U.S. farm values averaged $2,350 per acre for 2011, up 6.8 percent from the previous year.
In the Mountain region, the highest farm real estate value was in Arizona, at $3,500 per acre nearly twice that of Utah and the lowest was in Wyoming, at $540 per acre.
Utah cropland prices also declined by $30 an acre from last year, although pasture value remained the same, at $920 per acre, according to the report.
One tool to preserve farmland, said Blackham, is conservation easements, in which farmers sell rights to develop land. They may sell their property or pass it along to heirs, but the land must be retained as farmland.
This past legislative session, however, lawmakers blunted that tool by deciding in a cost-cutting move not to provide money for the Lee Ray McAlister fund, which pays farmers and ranchers for conservation easements.
The fund has preserved about 80,000 acres of Utah land, most of it agricultural, as well as recreational and archaeological sites. Over the past 10 years, the state pitched in $20 million that was augmented by $110 million from the federal government and other sources.
Officials say that for every $4 in land farmers asked to be placed under an easement, only $1 was available to purchase it, even with the fund.
Blackham said that Utah lost 500,000 acres of productive agricultural lands this decade alone. And during the past 40 years, Utah lost farm and rangelands equaling the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.
In May, Blackham helped convene a meeting of the newly formed Sustainability Task Force, charged with considering other alternatives to save farmland. But other than testimonials on the importance of agriculture, its 25 members did not come with any ideas. The group is scheduled to meet again this fall.
Earlier this year, lawmakers also rejected forming the agricultural task force, so the governor stepped in, allocating about $20,000 needed for the group to begin its task. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is its chairman.
Among its members is Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, who sponsored a bill last year that would have saved some Utah farmland from development. Money to pay for that voluntary program would have come from taxes collected from other farmland sold for development, an amount that would range from $4 million to $10 million annually statewide.
Lawmakers also killed that bill because they didn't want to take money from counties.
Farm real-estate prices
• U.S. farm value, a measurement of all land and buildings, averaged $2,350 per acre for 2011, up 6.8 percent from the previous year.
• Utah's value averaged $1,800 per acre, down 0.6 percent from the previous year.
• Regional changes ranged from a 15.9 percent increase in the Corn Belt to a 2 percent decline in the Southeast.
• The highest values were in the Northeast, at $4,690 per acre, while the Mountain West had the lowest value, $923 per acre.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture