July 10, 2009

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From Pitchforks to Cell Phones

Agribusiness Reaps Technology Benefits

By Janine S. Creager

July 10, 2009

Today’s farmers and ranchers are a far cry from the stereotype found in Grant Wood’s classic painting “American Gothic.” While Utah agribusiness owners may still use pitchforks and overalls, as depicted in the painting, they are also technologically-savvy and Internet-wise. They view the terrain and boundaries of their farms on Google Earth, access laser technology to perfectly level their fields, use satellite imaging to know when to water and fertilize their crops and follow product prices at home and abroad online. “It’s interesting to go to farm conferences and hear them talk,” says Seth Winterton, deputy director of Utah’s Own. “We make fun of farmers and stereotypes of agriculture. But people don’t realize how educated farmers are. Farmers are always working on something.” Agriculture has been at the heart of Utah’s history since American Indians and pioneers plowed the desert sod to plant crops for the coming season. In the intervening centuries, the introduction of machinery such as tractors and harvesters made planting and reaping easier. But with the recent advancements in technology, the state’s agricultural industry has become more productive and efficient than ever before. Growing Technology One central issue to the current and future state of agribusiness in Utah involves water: where it comes from, and how it is used. “Water demands in Utah have escalated as populations have grown,” says Randy Parker, CEO of Utah’s Farm Bureau Federation. “Agriculture is still the primary user of water resources. Back to settlement, most of the irrigation practices were flood irrigation, a less than efficient use of the water. Most, if not all, commercial farms have moved to other more efficient ways of irrigation. [They are] more costly, but a more efficient use of the resource. [Farmers are now] moving to drip irrigation, rather than flood or sprinkler.” Beyond the mechanics of moving water from one location to another, Parker believes that technology, and more specifically biotechnology, will help solve water issues in the future. Efforts are being made to produce plants that are more drought-tolerant and able to adapt to Utah’s unique climate. “That’s going to be a major player,” he says. “I think it’s going to be huge.” Biotechnology, and its inherent genetically-motivated organisms (GMOs), are definitely on the forefront of what is to come. Whether used to increase yield and production of crops or to reproduce livestock with specific traits and breed characteristics, the process has plenty of supporters and critics. “Most technologies when they come out are controversial,” says Winterton. “As you go through, you have to decide if it’s good or bad, and whether to use it.” With a burgeoning population in the world, better use of current resources is a consideration. And as Randy Parker points out, compared to production levels nearly 50 years ago, we are doing exceptionally well today. “Currently, 38 percent of the land mass globally is being disturbed to produce food and fiber for more than 6 billion people,” he says. “That’s an astonishing fact. Back to 1960 production levels—what could be produced on an acre—it would take 82 percent of land mass to produce today’s needs. This technology, this genetic selection, these fertilizers and irrigation technologies are a huge pat on the back for our food producers globally in being eco-friendly. No other industry comes close to meeting the growing demands of [feeding 6 billion people].” Close to Home The phrase “think global, act local” is attributed to a Scottish planner and social activist more than 100 years ago. The implications of the maxim are well-known and accessed today, especially to the agricultural industry. Randy Parker notes that of the 40,000 products found on local grocery shelves, the average distance from farm to store is 1,200 miles. Limiting that distance through the production and purchase of local products lessens the impact on the environment and carbon footprint, stimulates the local economy and makes available to consumers, on the whole, fresher and safer products. The value and contributions of Utah’s farms and ranches is of particular interest to Don Albrecht. As director for the Western Rural Development Center, one of four regional centers committed to improving the quality of life for rural America, Albrecht knows that the agricultural industry and advancements in technology in Utah and surrounding states, affects all citizens, not just those living in rural areas. “It is a high-tech business. I think the real change has been in terms of information and communication technology, the Internet, the cell phone that allows farmers to be aware of markets and prices,” says Albrecht, whose center is located on the Utah State University campus. “As I look to the future, I think that will continue.” A threat to the future of Utah’s agriculture industry is the aging population of farmers. Currently, the average age in the industry is 57 years old. “That is a concern of what is going to happen to that population. Longtime extension programs like 4H, FFA (Future Farmers of America) and the Utah State Extension, are . . . making an effort to change this image [to bring in the next generation],” says Albrecht. Along with this, Seth Winterton points to the importance of recognizing the everyday benefits received by the agricultural industry. “[We need] to respect the agricultural roots and not take it for granted. It’s important to look around and see what we’re doing. We need to take care of our farms, our local ranchers,” he says. “My biggest concern is people recognizing the need for agriculture generations away from farms,” he adds. “Without agriculture you’d be hungry and naked. People just take that for granted. What’s bad is what is going to happen when it’s gone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. There is value to agriculture in our state.”
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