Gov. Spencer Cox — a farmer himself — is calling on Utahns to conserve water to help save the state’s farms and ranches. And he doesn’t want to hear from anyone that the state’s water woes can be solved by further restricting the flow to farms.
That’s “very uninformed,” Cox said. “I might say ignorant. … Nobody has done more to cut back on water usage in this state than our farmers,” whose water has been cut “between 70 and 75% on most farms. As a result, that’s dramatically reducing crops.”
Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, and Craig Buttars, the commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, stood before a very dry field of alfalfa at the Roberts family’s Layton farm to plead for Utahns to use less water.
“If everyone conserves,” the governor said, “our farmers can produce a little bit more this year and get through and be back even better and stronger next year.”
He said he wants to “change that narrative that if we just reduce water to farms and ranches, we’ll have more water. It’s just not that simple.” In part because cutting water to agriculture will drive up food prices.
“The people that get hurt the most are the poor in our state, because they still have to buy food,” Cox said. “The most needy amongst us are going to feel it the most. So when our farmers struggle because of drought, there’s a tax on the poor.”
And farmers are barely hanging on, according to Tyson Roberts, whose family has farmed in the Layton area since 1847.
“Agriculture in Utah is in survival mode right now,” Roberts said. “We don’t have enough water to grow all the crops that we should. … When I say survival mode, I mean — I hope I can pay the bills this year.”
On Cox’s farm in Fairview, they raise alfalfa, oat hay and some other grains that are sold to other farmers and ranchers in the area. And they’ve been hit hard by the drought.
“We’ve seen a 75% reduction in water on my own farm and in production capacity,” Cox said. But he considers himself “very fortunate” because his “small family farm” is not his only source of income.
“We have other jobs. … 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.”
The governor laid out the case that water for agriculture is more important than watering lawns to keep them green.
“It’s not that we should punish farmers so we can have green grass,” he said. “The grass at my house is not going to feed one family. The grass at my house is not going to produce any economic development in our community. The grass in my house is not going to do anything to help the greater cause in our state. But every drop that gets to these farms is going to help someone in our state, and usually multiple people and multiple families. And so it’s important that we protect agriculture in our state.”
And he offered his thanks to farmers who “grind every day and every year. They live on prayers. They know that they’re subject to the whims of Mother Nature and a God in heaven who helps to make all of this come together and to work. We’ve been able to keep these farms in families for generations. We would lose a significant part of who we are as a state and as a country, the very best of us, if we were to lose these farms.”