January 1, 2012

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Food for Thought

Local Farmers Fight for Agricultural Survival

Dianne Lewis

January 1, 2012

Charlie Black stands squinting into the afternoon sun.

“Our biggest crop is the corn maze,” he says. “Financially, the corn maze keeps us going.”

Behind him, buildings that once used to store onions are being used as the entrance and exit to the haunted corn maze and harvest market. For Black, the second of four generations to work on Black Island Farms, the future is uncertain at best.

The problems facing agriculture in Utah are complex. Farming is threatened by development; protection of agricultural land is minimal and has loopholes. An oversupply of food has made it so cheap that making a profit is difficult. And labor is fraught with issues, most surrounding immigration.

At nearly 15 percent of the state economy, any ripple in agriculture can have long-lasting impacts. While Utah ranks only 36th in the country for number of farms, it’s still a $16.3 billion business, and that’s before you count businesses directly tied to food like restaurants and grocery stores, says Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau.

Like a game of Pick-Up-Sticks, a small movement in one issue nudges everything else. One farmer going down could mean it’s no longer profitable for processors or equipment suppliers to stay, which raises costs for everyone remaining. A new highway can put a family farm out of business.

There are no easy answers, and farmers and ranchers, especially those with small to medium-sized operations, are caught in the middle, just figuring out how to make it through the next year.

Protecting the Land

A banner hangs at the entrance to the harvest festival, the stark lettering spelling out Black Island Farms’ most imminent threat. “Stop UDOT – help save farmland and open space.” The farm, with the help of the Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF), has been trying to convince the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) not to plow the Legacy Highway extension through this and other farms.

There are a few protections for farmland. Farmers incur lower taxes and can utilize agricultural protection zones, which protect them from nuisance complaints and condemnation, but even that can be circumvented, as Black has discovered. Despite a conservation easement and being in an agricultural protection zone, UDOT can still build a highway through the middle of his property if it chooses to do so.

Parker says Black Island Farms is in a unique microclimate, with just the perfect soil, water and weather conditions to grow what they do (West Bountiful was once known by the name Onion Street), but none of that seems to matter. “Federal law says the state of Utah or whoever is encroaching has to look at unique farmlands and protect those, and we aren’t seeing that,” he says.

Commercial development is perhaps the largest long-term threat to farmers. Every year, more farmland disappeares. Between 2002 and 2007, Utah lost more than 600,000 acres of agricultural land. Many farmers lease a lot of land in addition to owning some. They don’t have the money to buy it, because the development rights on the land are three-quarters of the cost.

“We lose more rental property every year,” says Cache Valley farmer Keith Meikle. “Every year, one of the people we rent from dies and their kids get it and sell it. They say, ‘That’s just dirt.’ To a farmer that’s not just dirt—that’s got a soul.”

Meikle supports the views of Envision Cache Valley, a group with the vision statement “Keep the City, City and the Country, Country,” but notes the organization has no enforcement power. People crave the country, he says. They use wheat fields to take family pictures. They feed ducks living in farm canals and enjoy getting away from the city for walks. “It’s a healing thing to them,” Meikle says. “There’s a magic in seeing that green patchwork laid out.”

Farmers are fiercely protective of their land, but are divided about whether protecting private property rights requires governmental intervention. Leonard Blackham, Utah commissioner of agriculture and food, says the UDAF supports conservation easements, strengthening agriculture protection laws and keeping a critical mass of farmers in an area to support infrastructure necessary for processing and production.

Whatever happens, Black says he’s afraid the only way agricultural land will get saved is when food is scarce enough to make agricultural land worth more than what developers will pay. “Someday we’re going to need all the land we can get—and we’re getting close.”

Fighting to Survive

Page 12
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