On the EDge: The dilemma of rural Utah

Composite image | Photos courtesy of Unsplash and Pixabay, St. George News

OPINION – It was a beautiful, crisp spring day.

A group of us had clambered up one of the small rises overlooking the splendid valley to witness the release of a rehabilitated bald eagle to the wild.

You could see forever, or so it seemed.

One of the people invited to the celebration was a local real estate broker.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I said.

He laughed.

“You see trees, wildlife, open land,” he said. “I see condos, houses and strip malls.”

I was sadly disappointed in the guy and moved along the ridge closer to the magnificent bird that had been lovingly tended by Martin Tyner, a federally licensed raptor rehabilitator and man of gentle spirit who has saved the lives of wildlife big and small for half a century now.

This was rural Utah about 15 years ago. It is still, for the most part, unspoiled. Say what you will, but Southern Utah is a place of incredible beauty once you cross the city line and head out into places where the houses are few but the land rich with flowing alfalfa fields, dairy farms and a peaceful rural hum that is endearing.

You can find yourself there when you let the quiet overtake you as you count the deer grazing in the fields, await the arrival of the migrating bald eagles and breathe the clean air.

But, the story is changing, as highlighted during the recent Utah Rural Summit at Southern Utah University.

Rural Utah plays an important role in the state’s economy, particularly in the area of production agriculture, the agricultural processing sector and food manufacturing, adding $21 billion to the state’s economy and sustaining 80,000 jobs, according to a recent report from Utah State University economist Ruby Ward.

From alfalfa to livestock, the agricultural sector is responsible for about 15 percent of the state’s sales. Add in manufacturing and the numbers show just how vital rural Utah is to the state’s economy.

So, what was on the agenda at the summit?

How to move technology jobs to rural Utah and how to train the workforce to do those jobs; natural resources, public lands issues, housing shortages in rural Utah, and the opioid crisis.

But, what about improving ways to move food from the field to the table more efficiently?

What about financing for our family farmers, who are dwindling in frightening numbers, overcome by huge corporate farms that squash farmers who have worked their land for generations?

What about marketing plans, transportation issues, ecological issues that global warming and pollution have created?

The answer to salvaging rural Utah and keeping it productive is not bringing in high-tech jobs.

We have heard that nonsense for decades, that all the state has to do is recruit high-tech industry and all our dreams will come true.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

Businesses that come to Utah do so for two simple reasons: They get land, utility and tax breaks and they have a workforce that has been historically underpaid. With cheap land and cheap labor the profit margin goes up. It’s the perfect scenario for the various carpetbaggers who have come and gone over the years.

They pledge to remain in business for five years, invest a certain amount of money and pay above the average wage.

These companies come in, purchase their land, put up their buildings and move their executives and supervisors from the home plant to Utah, paying them enough to average out a higher weekly wage than the current scale. It works out because those hired locally are at entry-level pay. The expenses, of course, of moving, building and all give huge corporate tax breaks to the companies who put in their time then move along to the next victim, leaving the workforce high and dry.

Meanwhile, the local farmers are forced to compete with massive corporate outfits and, now, a tariff war that will remove even more jingle from their pockets.

According to an article in Utah Business, “the end of NAFTA would negatively impact $31 million annually for beef producers, $15 million annually for the dairy industry and $72 million annually for edible food manufactures” in Utah.

In the grand scheme of state budgets, that may not sound like a lot, but when you look at how small the profit margin is for the family farmer every nickel counts.

Overall, Utah’s top five agricultural products are beef cattle and calves, dairy products, hogs, hay and greenhouse and nursery products.

The answer isn’t to continue to push for workforce re-training and recruitment of high-tech jobs. Utah may be a gorgeous place, but you won’t see Mark Zuckerberg moving his Facebook operation here any time soon, for Google to relocate here or for Bill Gates to pack up Microsoft and set up shop in Utah. There isn’t an area in all of Utah that could compete with the sophisticated, culturally and socially diverse areas where those companies are headquartered.

More importantly, the workforce for these highly specialized jobs is simply not in place in Utah and no high-tech company is willing to put growth on hold for three or four years to train a workforce.

Recruiting these high-tech companies would simply result in more carpetbagging with precious few new jobs going to the locals. Those who have been schooled in the high-tech industries have, for the most part, already moved away to places where the better-paying jobs.

I’m all for education, growth, experience and advancement of technology. You wouldn’t be reading this if not for the rapid changes in our lives because of these advancements.

But, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a pressing need for people who can repair our cars, bring electricity to our homes, fix our plumbing, build our homes and, yes, grow our food. These are all good, honest jobs done by hard-working people with a passion for what they do and a gift for doing it well.

Let’s keep them in the equation.

And let’s not turn their land into condos, houses and strip malls.

No bad days!

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Real Life August 7, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Good read Ed.

  • Bender August 7, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    A few comments…

    1) Pig farming in Utah is, in some respects, the import of animal waste from populations that consume pork to huge waste ponds in Utah. Corporate pig farming generates massive amounts of manure. Circle 4 located in Utah, in part, to escape increasing scrutiny and regulation in the South and East. Whether or not taking care of and shipping 1M pigs a year provides good jobs I’ll let someone else weigh in on.

    2) Alfalfa (hay) sales outside of Utah, on the other hand, is export of our scarce water. Hay is a low value crop which consumes a lot of water. For example the Escalante Valley (Enterprise area) is grossly over pumping groundwater. It’s being removed at a rate far higher than natural replenishment. It is, in essence, being mined to water and export hay to the West Coast and Pacific Rim.

    3) “High Tech Jobs” is a tired and overworked phrase that seems to mean different things to everyone. The bottom line for me is that Utah’s population is mushrooming and agriculture and livestock is pretty much a fixed pie that won’t expand to create more jobs. Our water supplies are fully allocated so there will be no expansion of agriculture. Technology is cutting jobs in agriculture through automation. Don’t look here for employment growth.

    4) Technology jobs are not provided only by corporate robber barons swooping in to cubiclize the locals at minimum wage. The state has a healthy tradition of home-grown tech companies providing good jobs at good wages.

  • Craig August 8, 2018 at 10:14 am

    Places like St George risk becoming lost, like Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Park City, Livingston, Gardner, and others which “progressed” to the point not of extinction.

  • commonsense August 8, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    Ed, you missed big on the tech companies relocating to Utah. Not only do we have a well educated young forkforce but safety, health and low cost living. Adobe, Micron and others see this locale as very attractive.

    Most importantly, Utah has responsible government with no debt. This keeps taxes low.
    If cutural diversity means pan handlers, criminal immigrants and a mass Hispanic welfare problem, then I guess you’re right.

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