A fresh fruit stand on the side of the road—what is a more welcome sight on a road trip through Utah? The state is bursting with local food treasures, from fresh raspberry shakes in Bear Lake to flavorful nuts in Southern Utah. And hundreds of farms produce the tantalizing harvest of fruits and vegetables on display at markets throughout the state.
Food—it sits right smack in the intersection of health, environmentalism and business. The trend toward locally grown food is both a health-food movement and a green movement. But whatever the motive for people to choose local foods, this choice impacts the business of agriculture, all the way from the farm gate to the dinner plate.
The local food trend began sprouting in Utah about a decade ago. Proponents emphasize that freshly picked produce is richer in vitamins. Furthermore, many small farms employ organic techniques, and consumers can visit local farms to see how food and meats are produced and handled.
“As somebody who has been advocating for people eating local a little longer than it has been a popular concept, it’s amazing how much interest there is and how much more educated the average food consumer is today compared to the late 90s when we started our farm,” says David Bell of Bell Organic Gardens. “People are excited by it. It’s just a common sense idea that’s getting some traction.”
Recent food scares that had restaurants pulling tomatoes and other produce off their menus made consumers begin to question where their food comes from—and why restaurants and grocers aren’t always quite sure where their produce comes from.
And then gas prices skyrocketed.
“During the oil crisis of a couple of years ago, you couldn’t get a lot of produce because of the high cost of imported goods. So what we had grown locally became more important,” says Richard Sparks, deputy director of Utah’s Own, a program that encourages consumers to purchase locally grown and produced foods.
For Sparks, there are solid economic reasons for choosing to shop local. “When you buy an imported product—whether from another state or another country—we make a little bit of a margin on it, but for the most part the revenue is shipped out of state. When you buy locally produced items, not only does the profit margin stay in the state, it re-circulates in the economy.”
A walk through the produce aisle of a grocery store is akin to visiting an international fair. Most of the fresh food is imported, often from as far away as Europe.
The hard truth is that Utah has a very short growing season. If you want apples in February, you are not going to get them from a local source. Want oranges? California is as local as you’re ever going to get.
“I don’t think I could survive solely on a local food diet. We just don’t have the growing season. But it’s a great supplement and it’s nice to have some regional flavors,” says Matt Hargreaves, spokesman for the Utah Farm Bureau.
According to Hargreaves, the largest cash crop in Utah is hay, which is sold to diaries and stables. Utah agriculture is dominated overall by hay and grains.
But that is nothing to sneeze at: agriculture accounts for 14 percent of Utah’s economy, according to a 2010 report from Utah State University. Agriculture processing and production together represent more than $15 billion for the economy and $350 million in state and local taxes.
However, a quiet revolution is spreading in Utah’s agricultural world. Farms are becoming smaller and more numerous—perhaps reflecting a growing focus on consumer vegetable crops.
In 1997, there were 15,000 farms in Utah with an average size of 773 acres, according to statistics from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. In 2008, there were 16,500 farms with an average size of 673 acres.
The shrinking farms may also be a result of the proliferation of small, niche farms and ranches that cater directly to consumers with products like vegetables crops, goat cheese, eggs, herbs and free-range meats.
At the forefront of the locavore movement is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which enables people to purchase shares of a farmer’s crop, bypassing the grocery store altogether.
Dozens of small CSA farms have popped up in Utah, many focusing on organic produce. But some farms feature pork, poultry or diary items.
David and Jill Bell began to cultivate a CSA farm in 1998 after David made a fateful trip to Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City.
“One day I was talking to Steven Rosenberg at Liberty Heights Fresh about local food and he said, ‘See these tomatoes? I get these from a hot house in Holland.’ I looked at the price tag and thought about what it took to get tomatoes from Holland to the United States, and I said there’s got to be a better way.”
Soon after, the Bells had purchased and planted a half-acre farm—and they sold their first harvest to Liberty Heights Fresh. “They were thrilled and delighted with it and we were thrilled and delighted with what we got paid,” says Bell.
Bell Organic Gardens also began catering to a few restaurants, providing them with fresh, local produce. Later, the farm launched a CSA program in order to sell directly to consumers.
“It’s like buying a subscription to our harvest. You pay upfront and that tells us how many people to grow for,” says Bell. The farm, now a 17-acre operation, provides a diverse mix of seven or eight fruits and vegetables each week during the 18-week harvest season.
“We pick in the morning and divide it by the number of people in our program. One hundred percent of the produce goes out and is put in the hands of people within hours of being harvested so it’s extremely fresh and the quality is high,” says Bell.
Early in the growing season, the mix might include lettuce, young onions, sweet corn, tomatoes, summer squash, carrots, basil or green beans.
“Every week people come to pick up their produce and meet with us. It’s like Halloween—everybody’s so excited,” he says.
According to Bell, diversity is the strength of his farm. “If tomatoes don’t do well, I can make up for it on another item. Conventional farming just focuses on efficiency as its strength. And so there is a single crop with massive runs of production—and let somebody else deal with it after it’s produced.”
He adds, “I’m not right and they’re not wrong. It’s just two different approaches to solving the same problem.”
A Growth Market
Bright and early on Saturday mornings, shoppers head for farmer’s markets all across the state to fill their tote bags with ears of sweet summer corn or crunchy apples.
“The number of farmer’s markets has grown from single digits to well over 30,” says Sparks. “The greatest challenge to those markets is finding enough growers who are growing fresh produce.”
Farmer’s markets have spread through the state from Logan to St. George. Vernal, Moab, Park City and Tooele—just about every community has a vibrant market.
One of the earliest farmer’s markets in Utah was the Murray market, which was started about 30 years ago. This market was created by the Utah Farm Bureau as a resource for local growers and to educate consumers about local agriculture.
“Most people are three or four generations removed from a farm,” says Hargreaves. “We like to educate people about where their food comes from, and the markets give us a chance to do that.”
Unlike most of the farmer’s markets in Utah, the Murray market is a produce-only venue. The Utah Farm Bureau decided against allowing arts and crafts vendors at its two markets in order to dedicate all the vendor space to local growers, according to Aurline Boyack, manager for the Murray and South Jordan farmer’s markets.
“We get calls as early as January for participation in the Murray market,” she says. Murray has room for 40 vendors, while South Jordan accommodates 20. These spaces are filled quickly, and Boyack must juggle a waiting list of eager farmers.
Farmer’s markets have become big business for some growers.
“I’ve been amazed in visiting with farmers just how important these markets are to their bottom line,” Boyack says. Some farmers devote their entire crop to the farmer’s markets, while others dedicate only a small but financially significant portion of their acreage to market crops.
In fact, farmers have started to adapt their crops to consumer demand at the markets. For instance, many are planting apples and peaches that ripen earlier in the season.
Most markets don’t begin operating until the early summer or, like Murray, even until late July. Tomatoes, corn and other veggies begin to ripen in July, while peaches must wait until August. By September watermelons and cantaloupes are available, and October features pumpkins and squash.
In the Supermarket
Those seeking fresh, locally grown produce don’t have to venture out to a farmer’s market to find it. Most of the grocery stores in Utah now tout local produce.
Harmons, Smith’s Food and the Associated Foods partner stores all prominently display locally grown produce, as well as local meats and value-added food products.
“Some of the grocery stores that we work with have kept track of Utah’s Own products, and there has been a dramatic increase in sales over the past few years,” says Sparks.
“Go to the grocery store—look for shelf talkers that let you know what products are locally grown or produced,” he says. “That’s the best way for a consumer to find local products and support our food producers.”
Grocery stores and even convenience stores could do a better job of pointing out Utah products, according to Arthur Douglas, state director for the Farm Service Agency.
“If they would just put a sign that says Product of Utah, it would surprise them how it would increase their sales. People would be more apt to purchase when they know they’re supporting a producer in Utah,” he says.
Douglas would like to see all fresh produce, meats, dairy products and even canned goods marked with country-of-origin labels.
“We’ve got to do a better job of educating the consumer,” he says. “If people knew the standards that we have to produce under—environmental standards, labor standards—versus other countries that are under totally different standards, it would make a big difference.”
The Dinner Plate
The local-food movement is often referred to as a “slow food” movement—in contrast to the dominant fast-food culture. And the trend has hit the restaurant industry, so foodies can get their local-food fix at a few Utah eateries.
The Wild Grape New West Bistro, for example, was created by restaurateur Troy Greenhawt to feature local foods as much as possible.
After the spinach scare a few years ago, Greenhawt thought, “Boy it’d be nice to operate a restaurant where you actually know where your food is coming from and you don’t have to pull food off the menu just because there’s a recall somewhere else.”
Opened in late 2008, the Wild Grape Bistro currently purchases food from 22 local businesses. The restaurant’s menu features Morgan Valley lamb burgers, cheese from Beehive Cheese, produce from Santaquin Orchards—and many other local treasures.
Despite his numerous local vendors, crafting a menu around local foods is challenging.
“It takes a lot of effort on the chef’s part to order from all the different businesses,” says Greenhawt. “Generally restaurants order from two or three people and they’re done. It makes the chef’s life pretty simple. But when you have to order so much product from so many people, it’s hard to make sure we don’t run out of product and that we’re getting the best product available.”
But the extra work is well worth it.
“In almost every dish you’ll find a little bit of Utah,” says Greenhawt.