Working for "the Most Wonderful People in the World"
by Lynnette Harris
Although Randy Parker’s office in Salt Lake City is less than 40 miles from where he grew up, his career has taken him places he never imagined when he was younger and tending to sheep and cattle on his family’s ranch. His presidential appointment as State Director of Utah for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, is not a position the young Parker would have aspired to because, like most farm kids, he didn’t realize what a big role politics plays in agriculture. And while Parker’s career path has immersed him in agricultural politics and taken him to more than 25 countries, his heart and focus have always been close to home with Utah farmers and ranchers, who he refers to as “the most wonderful people in the world.”
Parker’s parents taught him to work hard and a lot about livestock genetics, especially of their registered “Parker’s Suffolks” sheep. They were supportive of their children getting good educations, but there was no example in his family of what it is like to be a college student.
“It was my vocational agriculture teacher at Pleasant Grove High School, Wayne Cornaby, who said he thought I could do well in college,” Parker recalled. “He was friends with my parents and I was an FFA officer so he became an important mentor to me. He is the one who gave me the push to go to college, the one who made me believe I could do it.”
Parker came to USU—like most freshmen—not knowing exactly what he wanted to study. Eventually, agribusiness and economics seemed like a good fit. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agribusiness and stayed to do research that became his master’s degree thesis, analyzing the impacts of estate and inheritance taxes on farms and ranches. Parker credits his graduate training as an economist with giving him the tools to analyze farm policy and business regulations’ impacts on people in agriculture and the credibility to work on their behalf.
His career began with a short stop at Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) as information and research supervisor before moving to the Utah Farmers Union and his introduction to agricultural politics. Returning to UDAF as marketing director, he opened new markets nationally and internationally for Utah products. Backed by his wife Shelly’s support at home with their young family, Parker traveled extensively to promote high-value, Utah-produced foods as well as the state’s outstanding sheep, beef, and dairy cattle genetics. They weren’t all simple transactions, even when he connected with potential buyers who were anxious to sell what Utah offered. A notable example was when a high-end retailer in Hong Kong wanted to sell shelf-stable, Ultra High Temperature (UHT) “box” milk produced by Gossner Foods in Logan.
“By their law, anything added to milk was considered an adulteration,” Parker said. “When the temperature is raised to produce UHT milk, it reduces vitamins A and B so Gossners adds those vitamins back into the milk, making it vitamin fortified. The government considered that an adulteration of the milk and wouldn’t allow it to be imported.”
The process of getting Utah UHT milk into the Hong Kong and China markets eventually took Parker, Gossners, and others, 3 years of negotiating.
Part of Parker’s efforts to market Utah products coincided with Salt Lake City hosting the Winter Olympic Games. Utah was on a world stage, and the UDAF capitalized on the attention with trade shows in many countries where demand for high-quality food products paired with people’s interest in the beautiful Utah mountain valleys they had seen on TV.
Parker became deeply involved in politics as a member and then president of the North American Agricultural Marketing Officials, a trade group representing agriculture and food in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
“I participated in trilateral accords where the three countries came together to negotiate agricultural trade agreements,” Parker said, adding that even in negotiations at that level, his focus was always trained on what would benefit people in Utah.
When fellow USU alumnus Booth Wallentine retired after nearly 40 years of leading the Utah Farm Bureau (UFB), Parker was hired as the organization’s CEO. During the 13 years he was head of the UFB, Parker’s familiarity with issues that are critical to Utah agriculture led to his being invited five times to testify before congressional committees on subjects of public lands management, livestock grazing, and state water sovereignty. He helped draft legislation and amend regulations hurting agriculture and rural Utah. His economic analysis of proposed power rate increases on Utah irrigation pumpers was critical in maintaining an equitable rate structure.
Parker is also a founding member of the Utah Agricultural Products Barbecue organizing committee, which he still co-chairs. The barbecue, made possible by food donations and contributions from Utah producers and agribusinesses, has become the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences’ main annual scholarship fundraising event.
In November 2017, Parker was named state director of USDA Rural Development, overseeing more than 50 programs, 39 employees across the state, and a budget of nearly $500 million focused on problems like affordable housing, modernizing infrastructure (including broadband access), and generally addressing needs of people in rural Utah. All state directors are asked to serve on teams or committees focused on topics USDA is working to address. Parker considered volunteering to work on something “easy” and familiar like water or energy issues, but decided opioid misuse would be where he could make an important difference in Utah. Last year, the state ranked 7th nationally for opioid-related mortality, and Carbon ranked the 5th hardest hit county in the nation.
“We tend to think of drug misuse in big cities, but it has transitioned,” Parker said. “Counties differ, but people in rural communities generally rely on agriculture, mining, and energy sector jobs. They are hard-working people and when they get injured they don’t sit out for long recoveries. And because they are often far from health care services they may get a prescription for 30 days of opioid pain medicine. These people generally do what the doctor directs them to do and think they should finish the pills, and before 30 days are up, many people have become addicted. People also feel isolated and pride keeps them from telling anyone they have become dependent on a drug.”
Utah, and the rest of the country, have a long way to go in addressing the opioid crisis. But Parker is pleased that critical partnerships with state leaders including Attorney General Sean Reyes, and a number of events to evaluate local opioid-related problems have produced measurable progress in the past year. Drug addiction and its attendant problems are not what Parker expected to be working on, but he is energized about helping rural communities identify problems and offering resources to help remedy them. For example, East Carbon City needed an ambulance equipped to handle opioid overdose patients on-site and to transport them to a hospital.
“We were able to help them get a $100,000 grant to secure that ambulance,” he said. “At Four Corners Regional Behavioral Mental Health, a big problem was that people with substance abuse problems often lose their driver’s license and can’t drive to treatment appointments. We were able to help with a grant for vehicles, a detox center, and ‘sober living’ transitional housing so people coming out of treatment have a safe place to go at a critical time and get the support they need to help them move forward in their lives.”
Parker has learned plenty and come what seems like a long way from farming and ranching, but really he remains closely connected. “With the support of Shelly and my family, I’ve been proud to represent rural people whether it was in Salt Lake at the capitol or in D.C. testifying before Congress,” he said. “I’m a farm kid and it’s in my DNA so it’s never going away. It’s who I am.”