Farmers and elected officials representing some of the six counties involved in the Utah Inland Port Authority’s (UIPA) latest project, an agricultural transit and production hub, cheered news of its approval.
“I don’t know if I support this if I can’t be there in person to celebrate,” said UIPA board member Ryan Starks, who watched Tuesday’s UPIA board meeting virtually. “This is a big deal for the state.”
The Central Utah Agri-Park Project is the fifth project approved by the Utah Inland Port Authority Board of Directors. According to a draft plan, it will span about 35,000 acres in Juab County and be divided into three potential zones. As proposed, the project includes an industrial park, a rail site and the “Agri-Park” – a transit and processing hub for Utah farmers.
In planning documents and public meetings, it is portrayed as a sort of last stand for the agricultural community in Juab County and surrounding areas.
“The Agri-Park aims to help make the region’s ‘family farms’ viable again by providing access to local protein, feed, milk, fruit and vegetable processing, cold storage and improved transport infrastructure at viable and sustainable prices improved,” the draft plan says.
“In addition, the Agri-Park will help resolve the food supply chain shortages that have arisen during and after the global pandemic by having more locally controlled food processing facilities and storage facilities.”
“From day one we have said we want to save the family farm,” Travis Khyl, executive director of the Six County Association of Governments (AOG), which works with UIPA and which includes Juab County, reiterated in a press conference on Tuesday . “[Farmers] We won’t get rich, but we need to make farming and ranching a worthwhile career for our children.”
However, the Agri-Park project and the Inland Port Authority as a whole have raised skepticism about the speed at which projects are approved and their potential impact on the environment. Many of the approved projects are located in endangered wetlands. UIPA officials said every project proposal includes an environmental review.
“My Juab County council will be put on the brakes,” said Courtney Henley, the lone dissenting vote in nearly two-hour meetings. “My heart bleeds for our farmers. What is wrong with our country that we don’t produce more food here and help our farmers? …But put on the brakes; Give it six years before you start spending too much money on the agency.”
Henley, a board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told The Tribune that her biggest concern is additional transportation leading to more air pollution.
“For reasons we all know: it is very harmful to health and very expensive. “You’ll die sooner,” Henley said.
Opponents have also raised concerns that the Agri-Park could become a hub for the export of alfalfa and, by proxy, water. Alfalfa uses more of the state’s water than any other commodity. Growers say it is one of the few crops that Utah’s climate can support and is a critical driver of the state’s economy, but some Utahns are wary of investing large sums in such a water-dependent crop.
“We’re in a drought,” former Utah representative Elizabeth Weight said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “What I sense is that the port and the people promoting the port … have just taken quite extensive and expensive steps to portray this without incorporating any part of the reality.”
Project proponents said the agri-park will provide the space and infrastructure to fill critical gaps in agricultural production, particularly processing and shipping, and not just alfalfa. Ranchers lose money when they ship their products out of state for processing, and having a processing plant close to home could make a big difference in farmers’ bottom lines.
“Transportation costs eat up a lot of the profits,” said Marvin Kenison, Juan County commissioner and farmer. “We need a way for farmers to earn a living. Our children will not want to come back unless they can make a living.”
The UIPA has not yet named any of the future tenants of the Agri-Park.
Henley and Weight both said they were skeptical about the agency’s ability to save agriculture in the long term.
Weight said her father left his family ranch for the same reason Juab County farmers are stressed: financial insecurity. But it wasn’t the processing, Weight said, that destroyed her father’s ranch.
The state could build a meat processing plant, Henley said, without involving the UIPA.
“What I’m hearing are really great ideas for processing,” Weight added, “but why does it need the port?” They want to sell products here. Why does this need the port? That’s not the case.”
Proponents said this is what residents of Juab County and surrounding areas want. To consider a port project, local legislative bodies must first “give written consent.” The Agri-Park was supported by Khyl’s six-county association, which, according to UIPA executive director Ben Hart, is exactly the type of collaboration the authority is all about.
“We are moving forward with a project that will really help many voters regionally,” said Hart.
Next, UIPA will consider a roughly 20,000-acre fueling and logistics hub in Beaver County, divided into four zones. The next board meeting is scheduled for October 4th.
Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America Corps member concerned with business responsibility and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation, in addition to our RFA grant, will help ensure she continues to write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking Here.