Mark Twain once said, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session”. With that in mind the Utah Farm Bureau works hard to protect your “life, liberty and property” each time the legislature is in session. We also work year-round to develop relationships with legislators and make sure agriculture is represented in policy discussions across the state in the intervening months.
Farm Bureau is respected for our grassroots policy development process. Legislators know that Farm Bureau policy has been well vetted by our members from across the state before it is adopted and brought to them. They know that when Farm Bureau speaks, we represent Farm Bureau members in each county.
While we put a lot of effort and time representing policies during the legislative session, it is important to note that this is just one part of the larger policy development process. Our process is what makes us successful. While it is easy to look at a single vote to define success, it is important to remember the process that got us to that vote. Successful legislation is often months, if not years in the making. So, as we look back on the successes of the past year don’t forget your Spring Issue Surfacing Meetings coming up. Bring forward your issues and concerns and let’s start the process to resolve them.
The 2021 Legislative session ended on March 5 and we are already working on issues and preparing for 2022. The 2021 session should be considered a success for Utah agriculture.
Due to the foresight and financial planning of previous years, Utah came through the COVID 19 pandemic much better than many states, while other states were looking for ways to cut spending amid the pandemic financial crisis, Utah actually had a surplus of state revenue. This surplus allowed the legislature to pass strategic tax cuts while still funding critical programs across the state. Agriculture benefited from funding for some programs critical to the future of our industry.
The USU Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory received $250,000 of ongoing funding to help make up a shortfall in their operating budget and an additional $250,000 in one-time money. The lab is critical to diagnosing and treating animal diseases that could devastate Utah’s livestock industry. Ag in the Classroom also received $150,000 of ongoing funding to ensure the future of the program. Other funding that will benefit agriculture includes: $3 million for water optimization projects, $3 million for range improvements and $2 million for the Agriculture Voluntary Incentive program, designed to help livestock operations comply with environmental regulations. Funding was also received for predator control, endangered species mitigation, water metering and various water related studies.
Funding issues were certainly not the only focus for Utah Farm Bureau, we tracked more than 50 bills that in some way will affect agriculture. Here are a few of the highlights:
Livestock destruction has been an increasing problem throughout the state, the problem has also extended to working sheep dogs that are being taken by private citizens and treated as abandoned dogs. This year the legislature increased the penalty for anyone caught killing livestock and defined that a livestock protection dog that is with a band of sheep is presumed to belong to the owner of the livestock. While ownership of livestock dogs may seem obvious to many of you, it has not been so obvious to many of our dog loving friends. We hope this helps solve what has become a real problem for our sheep ranchers.
Agriculture’s right to exist. In the past year or two, several counties have, created county ordinances severely restricting and ability to produce certain crops or raise certain animals within their county. While we understand that there are certain types of agriculture operations that may not be well-suited for every location, we do believe that all types of agriculture are important and need to be allowed in locations that are appropriate. Legislation was passed this year that prohibits counties from banning legal crops (such as hemp) in areas zoned for agriculture. Counties will also be required to identify areas in their county that are appropriate for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Utah Farm Bureau values local control, and we also strongly support private property rights. We believe that this legislation strikes the proper balance between the two interests.
Immigration. Access to foreign labor is critical for many agriculture operations throughout the state. Fruit farms, dairies and sheep ranches, to name just a few, rely on foreign labor to harvest crops and care for animals. While Utah doesn’t have the ability to create our own work visa program, we can help Utah businesses access federal visa programs and help reduce barriers to legal workers. These programs are often complicated and difficult for farmers and ranchers to use. This year, Utah will create an immigration office located in the Governor’s office of Economic Development (GOED), the office will provide expertise and assistance to Utah businesses as they work to bring in foreign workers through the existing federal visa programs. The office will help all types of businesses with all types of visa’s, but it is expected that a significant part of the work will be for agriculture.
Soil Health. It is no secret that a focus of the Biden administration will be on environmental issues. While this may make some in agriculture nervous, there may be opportunities for famers to capitalize on this focus and the money that will be available to those who participate in finding solutions. Carbon capture programs and renewable energy sources could both provide opportunities for ag producers. The legislature created the Utah Soil Health Program designed to help protect our valuable and limited soil resources and to help Utah producers capitalize on some the federal funding that will be available to farmers to address environmental concerns. The program will work with many partners including local farmers, federal and state agencies, extension and others to study innovative production practices that provide a benefit to the environment and to help educate producers about those practices.
Water planning and protection, this year the legislature created the Colorado River Authority to manage Utah’s share of the Colorado River water. Water is a scarce resource in Utah and with the population growth that is expected to come over the next few decades, it will be critical that we manage our water wisely. Agriculture will have an opportunity to be part of the discussion through our involvement in local Watershed Councils. These councils were created through legislation in 2020, but due to the pandemic have yet to really be put in place. There are dedicated seats on these Watershed Councils for agriculture and irrigation companies, and it will be critical that we have strong representation in these positions. The Colorado River Authority is directed to consult with these Watershed Councils. This new Authority marks a change to how Utah manages our water resources and illustrates the importance that the legislature places on water and its importance to the future of our state.
Rural economic development. Governor Spencer Cox frequently spoke about the importance of rural Utah throughout his campaign and the legislature was willing to take him up on the opportunity to help rural communities. There were several bills focused on creating economic opportunities in rural parts of the state. Rural Economic Development Tax Increment Financing (REDTIF) will provide post-performance tax breaks to business that create high paying rural jobs. Agriculture and particularly ag processing could benefit from these tax incentives, as it is a major economic contributor in rural Utah. The legislature understands this and plans on ag being a major player in rural economic development.
As I said in the beginning, policy development is a process, and it is never too early to begin that process. We have identified several issues that we will be working on over the coming year.
Brand inspection is a topic that seems to get everyone excited each time it comes up in the legislature, and it is coming up more and more frequently. The legislature plans to study the brand inspection program this year and we plan to be part of those discussions. Issues that are sure to be part of the discussion include: Self-inspection of dairy cattle, inspection of cattle going to slaughter and POST certification requirements of brand inspectors.
Animal welfare. We continue to see legislation aimed at the way farmers and ranchers raise animals, both our livestock and our pets. As Utah continues to experience growth in urban areas, we must realize that the urban experience and understanding of animals is often very different than what we have on the farm. Neighboring states are facing voter referendums seeking to define how animals are treated in agriculture settings. We had legislation proposed this year that would have made allowing your dog to ride in the back of your truck illegal on roads with speed limits over 40 MPH. We need to find ways to be proactive in addressing these issues.
Ag-land preservation, we all have seen how fast prime farmland is being developed in Utah, just look at Utah county. How do we protect our farmland and open space with such a high demand for development and housing?
Water is always a concern. There is an effort this summer to take a serious look at how we manage Utah Lake. Water quality is a big concern there as is the missed economic activity that many believe would accompany a clean vibrant freshwater lake. The management of Utah Lake could extend to multiple counties that fall in the Utah Lake drainage. Other water issues that we are being asked about include instream flow water rights and agriculture water metering.
Ag burning, it has come to our attention that our Ag burning exemptions may not be as clearly defined as we have traditionally thought. We will be working to clarify and protect that exception this year.
As you can see, there is no shortage of work to do. The process goes on. We fully expect to have additional issues arise throughout the year, and we expect to have issues identified through our Spring Issues meetings and throughout the year. Our policy development process is strongest when you are involved. You know the issues that affect your farm or ranch, you know the impact these issues have on your operation. We welcome your input at the state office and are always willing to help, but we also encourage you to take your concerns to your county Farm Bureau board. Often county Farm Bureau board members know how to resolve issues, because they understand the local conditions and know the local officials that can solve the problem.
Farm Bureau has a history of strong policy development. We just finished a great year despite the unique challenges that 2020 brought. We look forward to another great year. We know there is much to do, but with help from our grassroots members the future of Utah agriculture looks bright.
With the legislative session over, the work of policy development begins
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