BOX ELDER COUNTY — Joel Ferry didn’t always want to become a farmer and rancher.
In his former life, he worked as a banker for a decade at Zions Bank in Salt Lake City. He and his family lived in Fruit Heights, and he commuted to work.
But now, about eight years later, Ferry and his family work on a sprawling farm and ranch in Corinne, called JY Ferry & Son, Inc., on the same land where he grew up.
Ferry works with his dad and his uncle to run the enterprise — it’s a good partnership, he says. His family’s home is in Brigham City.
The Ferrys wanted their kids to have the chance to grow up on a farm, spending time on the land and raising animals.
“I’m the fifth generation farmer. My family has been here for 120 years,” Ferry said. “And I want my family to be here in 120 years. I want them to have the opportunity — my kids, grandkids ... future generations — to have the same opportunities or even better opportunities than I had.”
His kids raise their own calves to save money for college, he said. They bottle feed the calves every morning.
“I didn’t know that this farm life was going to be for me,” Ferry said. “... For me, there’s something wholesome about the rural lifestyle. It’s good. I just wanted my kids to share that experience. It brought me closer to my long-term vision.”
The analytical skills he once directed toward banking, he now uses on the farm, which is a complex and challenging venture, he said.
“When I told folks ... that I was going back to be a farmer, they were like ‘whaaat?’” Ferry said. “... They thought I was going to be out ... wearing overalls every day, you know, chewing on a piece of grass. And while I do chew on the occasional blade of grass ... it’s a very sophisticated industry.”
Ferry’s tractors run on GPS. They record exactly what’s been planted and where.
Ferry has apps that connect with his tractors and share information with him, including detailed information about crop yields, so he can analyze parts of the field that are performing better and worse and determine the reasons for the differences.
He sends samples of plants grown on the farm, like wheat, to a lab in Idaho to analyze their nutrient content, like looking for levels of zinc and magnesium. If plants from certain fields are deficient, he can calculate exactly how much of those nutrients to apply to those fields.
But the productivity of the farm and ranch are not Ferry’s only priorities.
He, his dad and his uncle prioritize sustainability and conservation practices that Ferry says are mutually beneficial to their business and to the environment.
There’s not just one practice that makes a difference, Ferry said. What’s key is how all of the pieces work together.
And there are a lot of pieces.
The Ferrys’ land lines miles of the Bear River and it’s a freshwater delta of the Great Salt Lake, so wetlands dot the property. These are prime habitat for migrating birds — so Ferry maintains those habitats.
“It’s like a gas station on the freeway,” Ferry said, “as (the birds are) coming from Canada, Alaska, Montana, even the Dakotas. They need fuel on their way to California or Mexico.”
The Ferrys leave some of their harvest for birds to eat, and they plant grasses that make good nesting habitat for them. During nesting season, the Ferrys don’t graze his cattle in areas that are occupied by the birds.
The Ferrys also till the land sparingly, leaving plant matter from previous harvests to cover the ground after harvesting. This is different from the traditional practice of wholesale tilling, Ferry said.
The plant matter retains water, which keeps more moisture in the soil. Not tilling also reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and leaves microbes under the surface of the dirt undisturbed, rather than killing them with oxygen. This increases the health of the soil.
After growing wheat, for example, the Ferrys plant cover crops of legumes, like alfafa, clover, collard greens and radishes. These plants pull nitrogen from the air and infuse the soil with nitrogen compounds plants can use. After the crops have served this purpose, the Ferrys graze the cattle on the cover crops.
And this is doubly beneficial. Ferry worked with Utah State and found that the soil where cows have grazed on the cover crops is healthier, due to the microbes cows leave behind in their residual saliva.
Cover crops aren’t the only way the cattle are strategically grazed.
Ferry has also trained them to eat an invasive grass called phragmites, which grows in wetlands. There’s almost not phragmites on the Ferry property.
Phragmites can grow as thick as bamboo, according to earlier reporting from the Standard-Examiner. The thick growth is nearly impossible to get through for wildlife and for hunters.
Birds, which are an important component of the wetland ecosystem, also find it difficult to nest in phragmites because the stalks are so stiff.
For all of these efforts, including more than one collaboration with entities at the state and federal levels, the Ferrys were recognized Friday with the prestigious Utah Leopold Conservation Award for $10,000.
This award goes to “farmers, ranchers and foresters who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land,” according to a press release from the Sand County Foundation, which presents the Utah award in cooperation with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, Western AgCredit and Utah Cattlemen’s Association.
“As we work together, we all see the benefits of what we’re doing,” Ferry said about his partnership with his dad and uncle, “through improved yields, through healthier soils, so we’re all together on this.”