Even as miles-long food bank lines have become emblematic of the coronavirus pandemic, many Utah farmers and ranchers have found themselves with plenty of food but nowhere to sell it.

“Farmers and ranchers have been in just a crazy moment through all of this,” said Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau. “It’s been devastating to some of our industries, and one of the industries that’s been hurt the most is the sheep industry.”

A sheep rancher in Sanpete County recently had a freezer full of meat he couldn’t sell, Gibson said, just as the Navajo Nation, where mutton is a staple for many families, was becoming one of the regions most affected by the coronavirus in Utah.

Looking at the twin problems of food insecurity caused by the economic crises and a drop in market demand for food products, a coalition of groups including the Utah Farm Bureau formed Farmers Feeding Utah, a new effort designed to address both issues at once.

In less than three weeks, the initiative raised enough money, mostly from grassroots donors, to pursue its first project: purchasing 16,000 pounds of lamb and 500 live sheep from Utah ranchers and donating them to families on the Navajo Nation.

“It’s really a Utah program for Utah families,” Gibson said. “The purpose is to help farmers and ranchers in the state ... to buy food from them and give that to people that have food insecurities.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally speaks at a Farmers Feeding Utah event in Blanding on Friday, May 22, 2020.

Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and former San Juan County commissioner, helped facilitate the daunting task of distributing thousands of pounds of frozen lamb and truckloads of sheep to families who live in the remote reaches of the county and where commercial-scale freezer space is in short supply.

San Juan County "is 51 percent Native Americans, and we are told statistically that we are the poorest county in the state,” Benally said at a kick-off event on Friday in Blanding, where lamb and bags of Bluebird flour, another local favorite, were loaded into vehicles at the Blanding Food Bank.

“We're working 24 hours a day to pull this off, and we will,” Benally added, noting that the live sheep distribution would take place this week and next in communities all across southeast Utah from Aneth to Navajo Mountain.

“When we tell the people they’re getting a live sheep and flour, they’re one step from heaven,” she said. “They’re very appreciative.”

The governor’s office and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food supported the project, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints covered some shipping and transportation costs. The Farm Bureau paid for administrative costs to allow donations from individuals to go directly to purchasing, processing and distributing food.

(Courtesy of the Utah Farm Bureau) Wade Garrett from Utah Farm Bureau helping load the sheep in Montezuma Creek on Monday, May 25, 2020.

Logan Wilde, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said the impacts of the pandemic on the food industry have been widespread.

“Across the board, every industry that’s in agriculture has been hit,” he said. “The price of corn just hasn’t come up like it usually does towards spring. There’s been a lot of problems.”

“We think [the Farmers Feeding Utah program] is a marvelous way for community outreach to happen across the state and across this country,” Wilde said.

Cheryl Bowers, director of the Blanding Food Bank, member of the Blanding City Council and county commission candidate, said the impacts of the pandemic were felt almost immediately in southeast Utah. The coronavirus arrived just as tourist-industry workers were ramping up for the busy spring season.

“At the first food bank in April after COVID hit, I had food for 220 families. About 500 families showed up,” Bowers said. Volunteers scrambled to increase capacity, but she said she’s worried about burnout.

Mutual aid efforts, donation drives and programs like Farmers Feeding Utah have helped local food banks adapt, and local groups have been critical to helping facilitate larger scale food distribution efforts. The lamb meat, for example, was stored in the Blanding Food Bank’s facilities.

When you simultaneously support local farmers and enhance existing food drive efforts in the state, you get a “true win-win," said Michael Mower, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s deputy chief of staff. “Nothing better exemplifies the Utah spirit and the Utah way than this program."

For Farmers Feeding Utah, the San Juan County project is just the beginning. The group is currently fundraising through its website and hopes to replicate the effort by supporting farmers and families in other parts of the state.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.