LELAND, Utah County — Rex Larsen, a fifth generation rancher and farmer in an agricultural community south of Spanish Fork, often jokes with a neighbor of his about what new speciality crop may someday sprout in the fields and pastures around their homes.
Where there was once barley, will there be a fast food restaurant?
Where there was once lush pasture grass for his cattle, will that land grow a truck stop?
"Maybe it's a Jimmy Johns, no. Or maybe its a Pizza Hut. We toss it back and forth."
Utah County is ground zero in the effort to protect the state's agricultural community from the grip of growth in a state that is expected to nearly double its population by 2050.
The unique microclimate and fertile soil in Utah County combine to make it the state's most successful agricultural region, producing $240 million in cash receipts in a farming and ranching economy that brings in $2.4 billion in a year.
Utah County, with its high-tech hub and two sprawling universities, sports the greatest number of cattle in the state and is the third most productive area in the state for barley.
Farmers and ranchers, however, are often land rich and cash poor. When developers come knocking there is pressure to let fields grow into subdivisions.
In 1987, Utah was home to 14,000 acres of orchards but that number has now dwindled to just a few thousand acres — with Utah County losing much of its prime agricultural land to new development.
The American Farmland Trust estimates that every hour, more than 40 acres of U.S. farm and ranch land is lost. The organizaton, established 35 years ago to help preserve U.S. farming and ranching, mapped critical areas across the nation that are high quality agricultural land under pressure from rapid development. The Wasatch Front, particularly Utah County, is especially vulnerable.
The Utah Farm Bureau, Envision Utah, the state Department of Agriculture and Food and multiple county and city leaders are in the midst of a two-year effort to give ranchers and farmers more options.
Larsen, who is on the bureau's board of directors, sees the pressures building as homes grow up around his farm.
When he's out on the tractor tending to his fields, he makes sure he has his phone with him. On his phone is a screen shot of the state law that says he has a right to work his land, even if the hours may not agree with his neighbors, or if the dust might be an annoyance.
The clash of lifestyles provides an opportunity for government leaders to embrace ways to protect the agricultural community while balancing new growth.
Santaquin has 2,800 acres in agricultural protection zones that acknowledge the importance of the agrarian community and steer new growth to other areas. The city also requires landscape buffers between new residential development and orchard farmers to protect crops.
The city moved to allow "cluster developments," and gave farmers and ranchers the ability to remain on private water systems. Under this option, property owners are able to sell off small, unproductive areas for their farms to offset farm expenses and make accommodations for their family who want to live nearby, without giving up their entire chunk of property.
For its innovative work to preserve its agricultural community, Santaquin received an outstanding achievement award from the Utah Chapter of the American Planning Association.
"Santaquin has done a great job and is being proactive within city limits and the old Main Street area," said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy for the farm bureau. "They are using those city blocks that have not been fully developed and filling them in with development of housing rather than putting those new homes on existing farmlands."
Saving farm land is something Utah residents say is vital.
In an extensive public outreach called "Your Utah Your Future," 74 percent of respondents in the survey said agriculture is critical to the state's future.
Robert Grow, Envision Utah's president and chief executive officer, said he believes farming and ranching have taken on a renewed importance after residents discovered only 3 percent of the fruit consumed in the state is grown in the state and the numbers are even less for vegetables — Utah grows only 2 percent of the vegetables its residents consume.
"I think that was a real wake up call for Utahns, who saw that over the past many years we have been using up our prime farmland for fruit and vegetables for urban growth," Grow said.
The Utah County effort involves identifying and refining 40 strategies that will be part of a "tool box" to help ranchers and farmers, including making it more profitable and making the path from "farm to fork," easier to navigate, Grow said.
"We see Utahns who want to stop the attrition or loss of farming or ranching in the state, who want to stop the continuing decline in our ability to produce our own food."
Brown said Utah residents are placing an increasing importance on locally grown food, evidenced in the explosive popularity of farmers' markets and the popularity of Utah's Own — a program promoting Utah businesses and products.
"The last couple of years we have seen tremendous public interest and support of locally grown food and fiber," he said. "Citizens are more and more interested in learning where their food comes from and how it is produced. The more farmers can reach out to consumers and be responsive, we want to embrace that challenge."
Grow and others believe concerns over food safety are driving part of the increasing value Utah residents are placing on home-grown produce, meat and other goods.
On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control linked a three-state listeria outbreak to a Washington distributor, which issued a recall for 358 products sold under 42 different brands over a two-year period. The recall includes the Simple Truth Organic Mixed Vegetables sold in Kroger stores in Utah and 29 other states and was expanded to an Oregon frozen meal producer that was pulling 47 million pounds of meat and poultry products.
The list of food recalls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website is long over the past several months and includes all manner of food — meat tamales, poultry products, beef and more due to possible listeria or E-coli contamination.
Larsen has 300 acres that he uses to raise barley for seed, corn and alfalfa. He also has about 100 head of beef cattle.
He lives in the home that was his grandfather's that was built nearly 100 years ago.
His father was an only son, and was able to keep the ranch and farm going.
Larsen has a son and three daughters, but none of them are in a position to continue the family legacy of farming and ranching.
"I hate to be the last one."
He recently had back surgery and would like to retire some day, travel some and perhaps serve a mission with his wife for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When he looks at development options, he said he wants to be picky and often thinks about the legacy he may leave behind. A truckstop doesn't have the right feel, nor does a burger and soda shop. Larsen said he wants the option of being able to generate income for the next generation and create something lasting that helps others.
"If we do make changes, I want to do it right," he said. "I think, 'Would my great-grandfather think this is right?' Maybe I am too picky, but I want something that I can look at and say, yes, that's OK.'"
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