Farming is a key player in Utah's economy, more so than previous studies have shown.
That's because related industries are for the first time being counted along with farmers' production. A newly released Utah State University study shows that this combination contributes an impact of more than $15 billion annually to the state.
Agriculture, food-processing plants and dollars farmers spend in local communities make up nearly 15 percent of the state's economy, providing jobs for more than 66,000 people, and work that generates $350 million in state and local taxes.
Officials say the study is the first of its kind in Utah that gives a broader, more accurate picture of agriculture's financial contribution.
By contrast, traditional studies have focused solely on farm production and peg agriculture's contribution at only 2 percent or less.
"When people talk about agriculture, they tend to focus on the plows, cows and sows," said economist Paul Jakus. "There's almost a disconnect in that most people don't look any farther than the farm."
But study authors Jakus, Ruby Ward and Dillon Feuz also took into account related industries that are dependent on farming, such as milk- and cheese-processing plants.
"That milk and those beef cows have got to go somewhere," said Jakus. "Agricultural processing is every bit a part of agriculture as is farming,"
Such plants remain a robust industry while nationwide, manufacturing as a whole has declined to pre-World War II levels, federal officials say.
State Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham said food-processing plants have become the mainstay in the manufacturing industry.
"The study also shows that agriculture is not just important for the economies of rural areas," Blackham said. "Populated areas also benefit from agriculture."
Utah County, part of the highly urbanized Wasatch Front, brings in the greatest value of agricultural receipts of any county in Utah, according to the study. Other counties generating the largest agricultural cash receipts are Millard, Beaver, Box Elder, Cache, Sanpete and Iron counties. The seven combined account for almost two-thirds of agricultural sales in Utah.
On the downside, Utah is losing agricultural lands at an alarming rate, said Blackham. Between 2003 and 2008, the state lost 500,000 acres of farmland to development.
Another study released this week shows that in 20 years, Utah County will loose nearly a quarter of its existing farmland. Weber County is expected to loose more than 40 percent, Salt Lake, nearly 50 percent and Davis 70 percent.
Blackham is supporting HB201, a voluntary program that would allow farmers to keep their land in production. Farmers would sell their development rights to the government, keeping the farmland in production.
The bill, however, has failed to pass out of a House committee.
The total impact of farming and agriculture-related industries accounts for 66,000 jobs and brings $15.2 billion to Utah's economy.