Editor’s note: This article about agriculture in Utah County is the second in a short series.
In 2014, Envision Utah did a statewide survey asking residents if they wanted to be more self-sufficient and better at feeding their own population. The result was overwhelming, according to Ryan Beck, VP of planning for Envision Utah — 98% of residents answered “yes.”
“Very rarely do you have 98% of the population say, yes, we want to do better,” Beck said.
A lot of that self-sufficiency would come from agriculture — the state growing its own food. But Utah County, Envision Utah found, is barely self-sufficient today. In 2050, when the population is expected to more than double, it will become even less self-sufficient.
According to a study Envision Utah did in 2016 at the request of the Utah County Commission, Utah County currently produces more than enough protein (beef, chicken, pork, eggs) to feed its population at 134%. As for fresh fruits and vegetables, however, Utah County only produces enough to support 5% of its population. In 2050, with the predicted rise in Utah County’s population, if the same acreage is still producing protein and produce, those percentages will drop to 70% and about 2.6%, respectively.
And yet, large scale farm operations such as orchards (which are small compared to large farm operations in other states) often have to export their produce out of the state to make ends meet.
Next to protein, tart cherries are one of Utah’s biggest exports, and Utah is often the first or second highest producer of tart cherries in the nation, according to Commissioner Nathan Ivie. Robert McMullin, head of McMullin Orchards in south Utah County, said 500 acres of their 1200 acre farm is dedicated to tart cherries. They belong to a co-op that markets their tart cherries for them. Another 500 acres is dedicated to other fruit: peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, sweet cherries and pluots. That fruit is all processed at the McMullin Orchard, washed, sorted, stored and shipped.
McMullin said they try to focus on local markets as much as they can, selling to stores like Harmon’s and participating in local farmers markets, but much of their produce ends up going out of state. Last year, their produce was shipped as far as Philadelphia, and also went to Texas, California and Arizona.
“There’s not enough market here to take all of our produce,” McMullin said. “Right now it’s tough to make a living in the farming business, especially if you’re depending on exports. It really is.”
Like many farmers in America, the McMullins have been hit hard by tariffs and the trade war with China, among other things. They recently filed an anti-dumping lawsuit against Turkey because the country is importing tart cherries at $1 a pound, whereas the McMullins have to sell their tart cherries at a wholesale price of $4.50 or $4.75 a pound.
“If markets don’t improve on some of our fruit, we’re going to start pulling out trees and look and see what else we can diversify into,” McMullin said.
It’s interesting to note that McMullin Orchards has to sell so much of their fruit out of state, when according to data from Envision Utah, Utah County alone could probably consume all of what they produce. Part of the problem, McMullin said, is stores will sometimes claim to sell local produce and use the McMullin branding (Farmer Mac), but don’t actually buy a lot of produce from the orchard.
“Local has a broad interpretation,” McMullin said. “Some of them say within 250 miles of your state border is local.”
It’s up to consumers, McMullin said, to ask questions to ensure they’re really buying local and supporting local farms.
“We’re getting enough population here in Utah, especially in Utah County, that, really, honestly, if we had the support of everybody here in Utah County and in Salt Lake, well, in the state of Utah, we could sell every piece of fruit that we have, right here in Utah. I wouldn’t have to send anything to Philadelphia.”
One way residents can ensure they are buying local is by shopping at stores they know support local agriculture. Harmon’s is a small chain unique to Utah that many farmers mentioned as supportive, but some farmers have also chosen to take matters into their own hands, like the Rowleys.
The Rowleys for years have also grown tart cherries. They were also one of the first family farms to add things like a pumpkin patch and a corn maze back in the 90s. But the thing they might be the best known for is the Rowley’s Red Barn. The Rowley family, in addition to growing tart cherries, apples, peaches and more, began to make jellies, jams and salsa to sell. They also make their own ice cream, popcorn and baked goods, as well as work with other local farmers to help sell their produce.
“I think that it’s great to support other other growers. And it’s more of a combined effort to get people to think local and buy local,” Tod Rowley said. “And, you know, working together has ... always brought more success to us than trying to compete against somebody. To compete together has always been better.”
Rowley said that while urban development has pushed a lot of farms out, he also feels like there is a rising trend of people returning to farming, even just in their own backyard. Recently, the Rowleys began selling salad greens that come from a man who wanted to farm, but couldn’t afford to buy land, so he ripped up his front and back yards and uses those to grow instead.
The Rowley’s Red Barn, which brings people physically to the Rowley’s farm to buy grocery items, is an example of what Commissioner Nathan Ivie refers to as “agritourism.”
“We need to do a good job of educating our younger population on on how food is made, and how it gets to (them),” Ivie said. “Take those opportunities, take your kids out to Young Living or to the Red Barn or to some of these agritourism spots that are popping up in the county, and let them touch and taste and feel that.”
Ivie implied that connecting people to where their food comes from could go a long way when it comes to preserving agriculture in the county, the state and even nationwide. He said that most studies show that 2% of farmers in America feed the other 98% of the population.
“We have to start to look holistically and ask long-term questions about what is best, what do we believe in, as a society? Do we believe that it’s important to be self-sustaining as a society? Do we believe it’s important as it as Americans? This isn’t just a Utah County issue. Do we believe it’s important as America to have our own reliable, safe supply of food? Or is that something we really are comfortable outsourcing ... to foreign entities?” Ivie asked. “The hard reality is, is that everyone depends on a farmer three times a day.”
Shopping locally also can have significant effects on the economy. In 2016, Envision Utah reported that agriculture contributed over 14% to the economy.
“What we know is that if you spend $1 on a Utah product ... it trickles, through the economy to the effect of $4-$6. So $1 spent equals $4-$6 the economy,” Beck said. “In terms of keeping Utah strong, being a little bit more independent, there’s some real ramifications there.”
A lot of responsibility rests with farmers, McMullin said, to package their products in a way that people can recognize them as local. But most of the responsibility ultimately lies with consumers to make sure what they’re buying in stores is local, to ask where it came from.
“As you sit down to dinner tonight with your family or with your friends, take a moment and ask yourself, ‘Is it important to me that my food comes from a safe, local source?’” Ivie said. “And if it is, take the time to look for that ‘produced in Utah’ when you’re at the grocery store, and support the industry locally first.”