Agriculture clash: how small farm owners are fighting for their livelihood
This article about agriculture in Utah County is the first in a short series. This article shares the challenges faced by small farm owners in Utah County and what they’re doing to overcome them. Subsequent articles will discuss larger farms, the politics affecting agriculture, and what residents can do or are doing to support it.
According to professional economist Natalie Gochnour, Utah County is driving Utah’s econom y. A lot of it has to do with job growth and in migration, which can be chalked up to Utah County’s thriving tech industry.
However, Utah County’s tech industry isn’t the only contributor the county offers. In its most recent Economic Report to the Governor, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that Utah County also had the largest total of agriculture receipts in the state. The report, which used numbers from 2017, found that Utah County was the top county for agricultural sales, totaling at $189 million. It also had the largest number of farms statewide, at 2,462.
The reason Utah County agriculture leads the state, according to Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, is because of the county’s “microclimate.”
“We have incredibly rich soil quality,” Ivie said. “Our bench areas have the right mixture of humidity, content, temperature, warmth ... that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state.”
Despite their contributions to the economy, and the unique Utah County climate that lends itself so well to farming — many small farm owners face challenges to make enough money to hold onto their farmland and feed their own families.
One of the biggest challenges facing farms and farmers in Utah County right now is the need and desire to build more homes for the growing population. A recent example of this urban vs. rural struggle is the Dixon Mink Farm, which after being encroached upon by homes for the past 33 years in Lehi, finally decided to sell their farm. Nadine Dixon specifically referenced the amount of negative feedback as a main motivator for the move.
“It’s been frustrating for us to farm there,” she told the Daily Herald back in Marc h. “Life’s too short for all that pushback.”
After a 66-unit housing development was approved earlier this mont h to be built on the farmland, their feelings were bittersweet.
“I feel good,” Dane Dixon said. “But I’m sad because I’m moving. It’s been a long life of being there too.”
Although many farmers in southern Utah County said their local governments have been supportive, they still feel the pressure. Rex Larsen raises cattle, barley and alfalfa to sell. Like many farmers in the U.S., he said his income has taken a hard hit due to the trade war with China.
His farm is divided up into different areas around Salem, and the area surrounding one of them — specifically, the land he keeps his cattle herd on — was recently approved to have a subdivision built around it. The subdivision will surround three sides of the farm, and also encroaches on the path Larsen has traditionally used to move the cattle from farm to farm for grazing.
“I don’t think people are going to be too excited for us to bring that herd of cattle through the subdivision,” Larsen said. He also worries about what the response will be from residents when a breeze kicks up and all the smells that come with cattle waft over to them.
Other issues tied to development include access to water. Trent Anderson with Zions Bank works as an agricultural relationship manager and often deals with farms, helping them navigate the financial side of farming. He said he believes water is the biggest factor in Utah when it comes to farming.
“There’s only so much land and so much water,” Anderson said. “As we have more urban growth, that’s going to take more water, but it’s going to take away water from farmers that grow the food to feed us.”
For farmers like Rachel Wilkerson of Wilkerson Farms and Clinton Felsted of La Nay Ferme, keeping their farms economically viable has been difficult because people simply don’t buy as much produce as they used to — or at least, they’re not buying it from farms.
Felsted left his career in the tech industry after he said he healed himself from Crohn’s disease through the “power of food.” He decided he wanted to learn about farming and ended up buying land for a farm in Provo in 2011. Felsted focused his energy on Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, which is like a subscription where people pay a lump sum up front and receive a box of weekly produce during the summer season.
This year, Felsted canceled the CSA because not enough people signed up, in a 90% decline from previous years. It was a difficult decision, he said, and extremely disappointing.
“It just didn’t feel like people cared,” he said.
Instead, he’s returned to his roots in computer science and created software to support small farms with crop and customer management, as well as marketing and partnership opportunities, and more. There are three versions of the software, with the first version being free. In the meantime, his land will continue to be managed — and he’s open to perhaps starting up his CSA again in the future, if it gains more support. The software is available to download at https://blackdirt.or g.
Wilkerson Farm s is also relatively new to Utah County, starting in 2010. Rachel Wilkerson married her husband Richard, the owner, and joined the farm in 2014. She said they’ve had to “follow the money” over the last three years to keep their farm running by growing things besides produce.
Up until this year, the Wilkersons ran a “farm store,” where they would sell their produce along with meats and honey sticks, things from other local farmers. They decided to close the store this year because they simply didn’t have enough people come and buy from it. They have cut potato production in half and tripled their pumpkin crop for their fall fair, which has been going on for three years and involves a corn maze, hay rides and so on.
“This last year, we had 10,000 people come through in the month of October. You think about, where were those 10,000 people during the summer for produce, right?” Rachel Wilkerson said. “People don’t want the food, they want ... pink pumpkins and the specialty stuff. So the biggest crop right now, we’re growing five acres of pumpkins, whereas we used to grow five acres of potatoes.”
This season, beginning June 8, they will have a CS A for the first time, where people can pay in advance to pickup a box of produce weekly, bi-weekly, or once a month. The CSA and selling produce at farmers markets will be their main source of revenue until the fall. Pickup is available in Orem, at the Provo Farmers Market and at the Salt Lake City Market, and signups are on the Wilkerson’s website.
“We’ve had to really follow the money,” Rachel Wilkerson said. “Because if we don’t make it, we don’t make it.”
Growing pumpkins and corn mazes is a common theme among farmers in Utah County looking to subsidize income. It’s part of what led Larsen to open a corn maze last yea r and a pumpkin patch after family members shared ideas on how to help the farm make more money. It required a new county ordinance to be written and other “hoops,” plus searching the internet to learn how to make a corn maze, Larsen said. But at least in its first year, it worked out well.
For Larsen, the new revenue source not only served as a way to unite his family, but he also sees it as an opportunity to teach the community about agriculture, and about the Larsen’s multi-generational farming legacy. Before people enter the maze, a member of the Larsen family gives them an introduction to the Larsen family legacy.
“If we don’t do it, someone else will and do it wrong,” Larsen said. “We have to market (the crops) and we have to help other people kind of connect ... to what we do and how we do it.”
Larsen serves as the vice president of the Utah Farm Bureau, whose mission statement he said is “to inspire all Utah families to connect, succeed and grow the miracle of agriculture.” This year, with the help of a grant his daughter applied for, the Larsen farm is planning to invest in and put together an educational program they can use to teach people where their food comes from, and about the people that work hard to produce it. Last year, Larsen said they had less problems with the corn maze being damaged when people understood the hard work and the people behind it.
“If they come to understand really what a miracle it is,” Larsen said, with misty eyes, “Growing the crops and raising the livestock, every time a new calf is born ... that’s pretty amazing.”
Learn more about the Larsen farm, their corn maze and educational opportunities at https://glenrayscornmaze.co m.