SALT LAKE CITY — The co-owners of an urban farming enterprise grow fresh vegetables, leafy greens and all sorts of herbs on 10 parcels of land around the Salt Lake Valley, working out cooperative agreements with the landowners so they can sell to farmers markets and restaurants.
Tyler Montague and Holiday Dalgleish, junior high school buddies who are now in their 30s, say their business — Keep It Real Vegetables — demands their time and sweat, but they love it.
"Honestly, it's a personal passion," Montague said. "I was spending all my time and money in this 'hobby' I loved, so I decided to figure out how to make a living at it."
Dalgleish spent time in Portugal and said everyone, rich or poor, farmed on their own land and had kitchen gardens.
"After that, I couldn't think of a job I would enjoy more than growing veggies and doing something good for the food community and environment."
Keep It Real Vegetables is part of a hot trend in Utah. Like the United States, Utah has lost acreage devoted to farming, but unlike what is happening on a national level, the number of farms in Utah is actually on the increase.
"It points to the fact that we have a pretty strong interest in people producing local food and consuming local food," said Doug Perry, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
"People want to know where their food is coming from," Perry said.
Numbers from the 2017 Agriculture Census released last week show that the United States lost 67,000 farms since 2012, with 14.3 million acres of farmland turned over to some other use. It is part of a 20-year trend that shows 55 million acres of agriculture land, or just under 6 percent, have been retired across the country.
Utah lost 162,792 acres of farmland since 2012, when the last census of agriculture was done, but gained 382 farms. A farm is defined as an agricultural producer with at least $1,000 in sales, which Perry says underscores the popularity of farmers markets and with it the increase in boutique farming operations across the increasingly urbanized Wasatch Front.
"Census data gives us a critical snapshot of important facts and trends that impact policy and decisions for the next several years,” said LuAnn Adams, commissioner for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, adding that producer participation in the census is high, at 75 percent.
Montague and Dalgleish don't own any of the land they farm on, but have eked out varying agreements with landowners by purchasing the water they use for growing anywhere from 35 to 45 different kinds of crops.
Coming by the land has been challenge, Montague admits, and emphasizes to him the rapid pace of development happening in Utah and elsewhere.
"We are lucky where we are because I think there is a cultural history of agriculture here with the pioneers who had to be self-sufficient. Even though there are different social and political types who are getting into this, it is something we can all come together about," he said. "We want to see our food grown locally, we want to know where it comes from, that it is not poisonous and it's fresh. It is a big problem for all us that this land will be developed."
The census numbers do demonstrate that despite development pressures, Utah County remains among the top five agricultural counties in the state for monetary value, producing $203 million in agricultural goods.
Between 2012 and 2017, in fact, orchard land in Utah expanded by 7.3 percent, with tart cherry production in Utah County driving much of that growth, Perry said, adding that Utah is No. 2 in the nation for tart cherry production. Vegetable land acreage also spiked by 9.3 percent over that time frame, mostly in Weber and Cache counties, where onions and pumpkins dot many of the landscapes.
Perry said the growth in pumpkin production indicates rising interest in agri-tourism businesses, such as the western Weber County operation called Gibson's Green Acres Dairy Farm, which offers wagon rides, a corn maze, a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, live entertainment, food and a petting zoo each fall.5 comments on this story
Overall, the agricultural industry — when you count manufacturing — delivers $21 billion in economic output, according to a Utah State University study in 2017. Beef is the top commodity, accounting for 20.6 percent of all raw agricultural sales. Cow milk is a close second at 19.4 percent.
Other hot trends playing out in Utah agriculture is a 63 percent increase in the number of certified organic operations and producers more than doubling their investments in solar and geothermal energy for their operations, according to census numbers.