Is the future of Utah agriculture communal or industrial?

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This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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On a brilliant clear evening in March, Page Westover, owner of Clandestine Farm in Pleasant Grove, stood in front of his hydroponic greenhouse to answer questions about greens and herbs growing indoors without soil in a medium of nutrient-enriched water. The questions posed by his audience were not softballs.

“What is your total weekly production of plant mass? »

“How much water do you use per week? »

“What is your energy consumption and do you compensate for it in some way, for example with solar panels?”

Westover answered these, and even other technical questions, framed by the incredible panorama of the farm, which stretches from Lone Peak to Timpanogos.

“What more do you want from the community?” asked Mitch Dumke of 3Springs Land and Livestock.

For this group of small, independent agricultural producers and farm-to-table restaurateurs, the word “community” carries special weight.

Gathered from across the state in support of the Red Acre Center – a non-profit organization based in Cedar City that focuses on educating and advocating for community agriculture – they represent a different type of agriculture, defined by its connection to those it feeds rather than its separation from them. Sometimes literally, as with Snuck Farm, which sits on the homestead that is now deeply tangled in suburban Utah County.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a global movement that has been around for decades, but it has struggled to take root in Utah.

“We’re late to the party,” said Symbria Patterson of Rec Acre Center and Red Acre Farm in Cedar City. “This movement has been around for a long time and it has grown and evolved across the country, and we’re just getting started. It’s a problem because soon we won’t have any land.

red acre farmwhich is owned by Patterson’s daughter Sara, who started it at 12, produces a huge amount of food on just two acres, but those were purchased years ago in Iron County.

“Imagine trying to buy an acre right now in Utah County or Salt Lake just so you can start an experimental farm there?” Patterson asks.

Yet Red Acre tries to help small homeowners do just that.

“Over an acre or even a quarter of an acre,” Patterson said. “We’ll help you get started.”

What is Community Agriculture?

Shayn and Kristen Bowler from Natural Utah Meat and Milk could serve as the face of community agriculture in Utah. Shayn is a fifth-generation Utah farmer. Kristen is a transplant from suburban Southern California. Like Snuck, their property in western Jordan was once isolated farmland that now sits in the heart of suburban growth.

For the Bowlers, community agriculture has many meanings.

“First of all, it means we serve our community,” Shayn said. “Here. Most people don’t realize that the food they get at the grocery store comes from everywhere – China, Mexico, Brazil. Almost nothing local.

Shayn says this should be of concern to consumers, as we have seen the risks and vulnerabilities of relying on long supply chains during the pandemic.

“Farming is hard work, 24/7,” adds Kristen. “Being able to know and shake hands with the person eating the food we produce is important to me and I think it’s important to her.”

For Bowlers, community spans generations.

“It was important for us to give our children the experience of working on a farm, working with animals and being together in what we do,” Kristen said.

Matt Eckelmann, Executive Chef at Community in Provo, echoed the sentiments of the Bowlers from the perspective of a farm-to-table restaurant.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt Eckelmann, chef at Communal, pictured at Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

“We want to build this community by bringing together food from Payson growers in Ogden and showcasing the great unique local food that grows right here in Utah,” Eckelmann said.

The Red Acre Farms vision brings together these concepts of community.

“Our position is that if you can feed yourself and your neighbor, you can feed the world,” Patterson said.

Small versus large agriculture

These small, community-focused growers also have the odds on their side thanks to Utah laws and regulations that block small growers from wanting to sell directly to consumers. That’s part of what brought the producers together at a fundraiser in support of the Red Acre Center.

Held inside Snuck Farm’s lavish barn, the fundraiser included a seven-course dinner prepared by local restaurant chefs with ingredients sourced from local producers. Donor participants were seated at a table with at least one of the producers listed on the menu.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

The goal, Patterson said, is to transform the Red Acre Center from something the Pattersons do in their spare time not working on the farm, to a semi-professional organization capable of representing the interests of community agriculture to the public and the legislature.

While the Utah Legislature has many members who work in agriculture, they all come from traditional agriculture – typically large cash crop farms, heavily reliant on industrial fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, and in the field of growing alfalfa or a similar crop as animal feed. livestock.

At dinner, former Rep. Marc Roberts of Santaquin, spoke about the many bills he and others had passed — bills that scored small victories for egg farmers, raw milk producers and even small home businesses selling pickled carrots and beets.

Roberts, who was a sponsor or ally on numerous bills, left the legislature in 2020.

“2021 was a big test for us in the legislature,” Patterson said, “but we’ve had the adoption of micro-business home kitchens.”

HB 94, sponsored by Rep. Christine Watkins (R-Price), legalizes the sale of home-cooked meals. Interested participants can receive a permit and, with an annual inspection from their local county health department, begin selling food immediately.

It’s considered a low-risk way to test out a restaurant, without the significant financial risk of opening a physical restaurant. It can also be a way to bring kitchens closer to the food they use, sourcing from backyard gardens.

For Patterson, however, the bill also represents the challenges ahead for the movement. In California, the only other state to have legalized home cooking microenterprise, the program is run county by county.

“There,” Patterson said, “people are literally lining up to get permits.”

In Utah, there was not a single candidate.

Patterson sees the need to change the law to a county-based, county-announced program.

More legislative work

Despite the significant differences between traditional farming and community farming, Patterson believes there is more that unites the two than divides them.

“We should be hand in hand on most things,” Patterson said, “it’s outside forces that divide us.”

Specifically, Patterson mentioned companies like Monsanto (now Bayer) and other agrichemical and genetically modified food giants.

They make farmers dependent on their products then they turn traditional farmers into advertisers for them. Then they tell mainstream farming that organic farming is here to destroy them,” Patterson said. “Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to be divided.”

Patterson sees the answer, unsurprisingly, in building a community of farmers. Most of what the Red Acre Center does is not advocacy, but education, networking, speaking to school groups and organizing conferences.

“I want to see the great hay farmer working with people like my daughter and Red Acre,” Patterson said, “that’s the community we need the most right now.”

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