January 1, 2012

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Food for Thought

Local Farmers Fight for Agricultural Survival

Dianne Lewis

January 1, 2012

“My concern as a farmer is to protect [agricultural] land, but I don’t know how to do that, except to make farming financially viable,” Black says. “If you save the land from UDOT, that doesn’t mean it’s saved.”

That’s because plenty of other things threaten the Utah agricultural industry. Everyone’s trying to make a living, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Three-quarters of the food in Utah is produced by only 3.7 percent of the farmers. Only 9.7 percent of Utah farmers in 2007 were making more than $100,000 in gross sales.

Part of the problem is food has only had modest price increases, but everything farmers need to grow the food—gas, fertilizer, equipment—has far outpaced food prices. If farmers are going to survive on food prices similar to the 1970s, says Meikle, they have to quickly increase their efficiency, but even that can’t fully close the gap.

Black says the Syracuse vegetable farm began diversifying when it became clear that farming alone couldn’t pay the bills. They’ve started selling at farmers markets, offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) and moving into agri-tourism: corn mazes, hay rides, harvest festivals and the like.

He’s not the only one looking for a creative way to stay afloat. Farmers across the state are branching out. And several have found CSAs and farmers markets are a boon to struggling farms.

East Farms, in West Pointe, attends three farmers markets and has the largest CSA in the state, with more than 600 member families. “The CSA has been big for us,” says owner Jeremy East. “We were almost bankrupt, so we needed another form of income that’s more sustainable…. Now grocery stores around here are on a local kick and that’s really helped in the last three or four years.”

The CSA now makes up about a quarter of the farm’s revenue with wholesale completing the rest. But East says that much wholesale work was impossible when he started because newer farms don’t have the “in” they need to sell. The CSA saved his farm in the beginning.

The increased interest in fresh, locally grown food has provided a lift for many Utah farmers. And there’s value in seeing where the food comes from, East says. “Having a food source near where you live is really important to teach kids food doesn’t come from Wal-Mart. You’d be surprised how many children don’t know that.”

Looking for Labor

Despite recent efforts to make money from different ventures, the payoff isn’t always big enough for the effort and some farmers have toyed with the idea of getting out. Jordan Riley, with Riley Orchards in Payson, says his brother Christopher is in the process of buying the orchards from his dad, Alan. But that was once up in the air.

“In our family’s experience, my Dad was about ready at one point to tell my brother not to worry and it wasn’t worth it anymore. And that was over labor,” Riley says.

The labor debate in agriculture is a touchy one. Outsiders are upset by the use of undocumented immigrants as workers; farmers say they wouldn’t have a harvest without immigrants.

Blackham says some farms and dairies have tried to employ only people whose legal status could be verified, but that was impossible to do and still have the workforce needed. “People who say there would be people to take those jobs don’t know what they’re talking about,” he says.

Utah farmers would like to have legal employees, Blackham says, but he believes it would devastate the agricultural industry if the state implements an E-Verify system before creating a solid guest worker program.

Parker says the situation is the same across the country. A lettuce farm in Arizona paid workers from a local employment service $25 an hour for the harvest and none lasted past noon. This echoes Riley’s experience; he says the longest someone lasted this year was three hours. Last year one guy made it a whole day.

Aside from the impossibility of finding enough verifiably legal labor, traditional workers simply don’t work hard or fast enough to get the job done, Blackham says. In studies, a team of four migrant workers outpicked 12 traditional workers. With farmers typically paying based on the weight picked, slow pickers make well below minimum wage, whereas fast pickers can make a living.

Like the other problems facing Utah’s agricultural industry, immigration and labor concerns will not be resolved anytime soon. Agriculture is one of Utah’s bedrock industries, and with an annual contribution of more than $16 billion to the state’s economy, the fate of agriculture in Utah reaches far beyond the dinner table.

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