September 30, 2016

Cash or Crops?

sample2The foothills in Perry, Utah, are flourishing with fully loaded green peach and apricot orchards. Looking west are lake views of Willard Bay, the Great Salt Lake and a few large homes. To the east are small canyons and a gravel pit.

Thayne Tagge is taking me on a tour in his nearly bumperless Toyota Prius on a narrow dirt road,.“This is way cool. You have got to see this,” he says as we drive up over a rugged hillside and through heavy brush. He can hardly contain his enthusiasm. We reach a narrow access road where we find a steady stream of clean water flowing along the mountainside in a mini-culvert. “I have no idea how they did such a great job building this,” he says while pointing to the 100-year-old-concrete aqueduct. It was built not long after Mormon pioneers settled and started growing peaches in Perry, Utah. “There has been need for only minor repairs this entire time,” he says.

The Mormon pioneers were ingenious with irrigation and farm production. Rather than rely on mining and imports, their vision was to build an agricultural-based economy. Even after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Mormons maintained the belief that they should grow most of their food and not overly rely on imports. “Latter-day” Saints referred to the need to prepare for a coming apocalypse. Canning food or “putting up” peaches is still an ongoing family tradition. Traces of pioneer farming and irrigation ingenuity are still found and used. Pioneers settled over 150 colonies, growing everything from peaches to tobacco, to cotton and grapes for wine. This area, nicknamed “the fruit highway,” is especially rich in early pioneer agricultural technology.

Photos of the Tagge farm show nearby houses encroaching around the farmland borders:

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Water from Pineview Reservoir 50 miles away is diverted down Ogden Canyon to feed Tagge’s peaches, blackberries, apricots and the dozens of other orchards in this area. Before the reservoir was built, the pioneers used the Ogden River to ensure that for years to come farms would have enough water even in drought years.

Thayne Tagge has adopted the spirit of innovation and resource conservation. Besides driving his electric-hybrid Prius to his four farm sites, he has changed all his orchards over to use drip irrigation and a sand filtration system with a pump powered by a solar panel. Using this system he no longer has the need to “cross cultivate” his trees.

By minimizing the space between his trees, his production has been boosted by 30%. Implementing water-conserving drip lines, he is using only one-third of his allocated water shares. Without boasting he says his production is the best in the area and now Tagge is supplying other farmers with the equipment and the knowledge to use drip irrigation to increase yields and become more efficient. One of his happy customers, who grows melons, visits us. ”This guy really knows his stuff,” he says with a grin.

“I’m in full production now,” Tagge says. “After spending my life working, I can finally say that I’m going to get everything out of the land possible.” Besides his drip crops, Tagge is also growing a variety of row crops in Tremonton on leased land: five acres of peas, 12,000 tomato plants, and acres of corn. In total Tagge farms 93 acres.

Not too bad for an accountant who in 1997 decided to ditch his office job. Thayne and his wife Cari started by selling Bear Lake raspberries and Brigham City peaches from fruit stands. But when he saw how much better off he could be if he controlled his own supply, “I just asked Mr. Sumida when I could buy out his farm, and he was ready to sell that very year. So he taught me for one year how to farm, how to cultivate, use the tractors and water. I bought everything he had; it was completely turn-key.” Over the years Tagge has bought more land in Box Elder County and learned to increase his yields and production.

Unlike other farmers, nearly everything he grows his wife and kids sell at fruit stands and farmers’ markets. “It’s a lot more work to do everything, but this way I have complete control and my margins are much better.”

Today Lopez and Victor (Pete) are his farm hands. “These guys know this orchard inside and out; they are experts and pruning and harvesting. In the summer I get more harvesters. They love to work hard.” I speak to Lopez who has been living in the U. S. for more than 10 years since coming from Mexico. “It’s easy,” he says. “I can work 14-hour days here. No problem. In a factory? No, I could not do that and be happy.”

Shadowing Tagge for a morning, I a get a small window into a farmer’s life. Tagge and his assistants wake up early with dozens of tasks on the agenda. Tagge shows Lopez the perfect pin to use on the cultivator, and exactly how deep the tines should plow. He sees that his peas need water pronto because he will be at his Holladay plot of land tomorrow planting cantaloupe. Lopez and I ride in the back of Tagge’s pick-up truck to hold a 40-foot pipe he will use to water the peas.

I help lift the pipe over the plot of land; the peas are in full blossom on May 19th. “These will be ready for market in a couple of weeks.” While Tagge says he wants to farm for years to come, he doesn’t wish to join a program to create a protection on his farm through a federal easement. It’s understandable. While the USDA Conservation Easement has created a mechanism to protect farms like Tagge’s, few sign on for obvious reasons. They could get about half of fair market value for their land, cashing out while continuing to farm, but the potential for selling and realizing a huge windfall from developers would be lost. It’s for this reason the opposing trends of suburban sprawl and the rise in popularity of farmers’ markets are on a collision course.

Farms like Tagge’s are disappearing at an alarming pace. Nationwide, one acre of farmland is lost to development every minute. And the most valuable, best farmland—like the orchards found in Davis and Box Elder Counties—are those being developed the fastest. While this is happening, more small farms are popping up. This trend is clearly evident at the farmers’ markets. There are an increasing number of farmers, but most of the new farmers lease land. The problem is that land becomes scarcer and more is developed. The cost to lease land and grow locally will continue to increase and a farmer’s ability to make a living will become less viable.

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The farmers’ markets along the Wasatch Front are growing more popular every year. Buying locally-grown vegetables and fruits is now chic, especially with urbanites. Consumers are conscious of all the benefits to buying local. The economic benefit is that cash is recirculated into the local economy instead of being funneled out of state to corporate entities. The environmental benefit is that gasoline required to transport food is greatly minimized. And the health benefits are that farm-fresh produce has more vitamins and nutrients than weeks-old produce imported from Mexico or California and found in supermarkets. The pioneers had it right. We all greatly benefit by growing as much of our own food as possible.

But with the rapid suburban development of farmland along the Wasatch Front, it is highly likely local farmers will be unable to sustain the demand for locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Utah is ranked number two, after Nevada, for being the worst state in the country for suburban sprawl. The land use per person is increasing not decreasing. And the worst trend is that as places like Perry, Utah, develop rather than preserve what little farmland is remaining, they are developing properties on two- to ten-acre plots. Wide green, grass lawns suck all of the excellent soil nutrients and use up the water resources.

Examining the problem from the farmer’s perspective, it’s hard to blame them for the simple economics. Land they purchased 15 years ago for $10,000 per acre is now worth between $30,000-$50,000 per acre, even in counties like Box Elder where Tagge is located one hour outside of Salt Lake City.

The best farmland for orchards is located above the benches and lakes from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake and Willard Bay. The lake effect offers cool nights and moisture as well as protection against frost, which occurs more frequently in the lower valleys. Peaches, apricots, blackberries, cherries and apples grow incredibly well. The fruit highway on Highway 89 was once home to more 20 family farm fruit stands. Now there are only nine. This is because the benches are also some of the most desirable places to live. With fabulous views of the lake and mountains, developers and homeowners are happy to buy and build.

This stunning area, still full of open space, free of the visual clutter of billboards and sprawl, with pristine views of the mountains to the east and the lake to the west, reminds me of Lehi and American Fork 18 years ago. I had a job selling meat in small towns door-to-door, and I visited with farmers with orchards who were selling their properties back then. Now Lehi, formerly full of cherry trees, cow pastures and sheep, is home to the epitome of ugly sprawl–a huge billboard-lined freeway corridor, corporate offices and big-box developments, strip malls and chain stores. All of this area’s former quaintness is gone. My fundamental question: Do residents see this as an improvement? Longtime self-described “dirt farmer” [find his name next to Verl] puts it succinctly, “a devolution is occurring.” He still sells plants at his nursery, and farms land around his home. But he is a “dying breed.” Friends of the Tagge’s Sherm —- is selling his farm to developers in Alpine. His children would prefer their inheritance in cash instead of land.

Tagge points out how a wealthy Ogden dentist recently bought 10 acres of orchard to build his dream home overlooking Willard Bay. Another pressure is from Geneva Rock, which just purchased 30 acres of peach orchards to protect its investment in its gravel pit. “They would love to have the land next to their lot as well,” Tagge says.

Tagge says second-generation farmers seem especially inclined to sell their land to developers. “For some reason they have a hard time. Most don’t seem into it. If they have siblings they share ownership with,” Tagge adds, “and just one of the siblings is farming and making money, the other siblings want their share. This creates a problem. If they don’t work the land, then they realize it’s best to just get top dollar and sell to a developer.”

Due to the rise in popularity of the farmers’ markets, with the increase in local demand for local produce, family farms are quickly becoming more viable and profitable. Tagge says the best solution is to make farming more profitable. This is a big reason why he so strongly advocates using the modern technology. He believes if farmers can easily make money, they will be much less inclined to sell.

Still, farming requires a huge investment in labor and capital. Successful farmers like Thayne Tagge in Box Elder County farm a variety of crops. He says diversity of crops has been what has kept him out of the red all of his years. Tagge says he wants to set up his farm so that he can work it from a wheelchair. Now 56 years old, he says his daughters and wife help sell the fruits, but his kids don’t want to help with the farming and hard labor. “I tell them, ‘unless you really love it,’ do something else, otherwise you won’t succeed.” Tagge says for him “farming is incredibly rewarding. I just absolutely love it.”

Come harvest season his 13 fruit stands and farmers markets will be full of fresh peaches, tomatoes, beans and corn all grown and harvested under the sun in a gorgeous setting. “It’s not like we make a boatload of money, but I definitely prefer this lifestyle.”