Most Utah farmers have been in the business for decades, growing food on large tracts — just as their parents and grandparents did — in rural areas of the Beehive State.
But Amanda Theobald and Elliot Musgrove, owners of Top Crops, aren’t part of that traditional farming mold. These 30-year-old farmers operate in the heart of Salt Lake City on a quarter acre — a portion of which is borrowed from the neighbor.
From that small piece of dirt, they harvested about 50 pounds of food each week in 2017, Theobald said. “We plant it really tight so we can get a lot of good stuff” — mostly salad greens and root vegetables.
The year, they will have to boost production, because they are the newest farmers to join the lineup at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park.
The state’s premier summer market opens for its 27th season Saturday, June 9, and is expected to have nearly 200 food vendors and 100 artists and craftspeople. It continues every Saturday through Oct. 20 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The market doesn’t have any major changes in 2018, said market manager Alison Einerson. “All the favorites are returning with a few new products to discover as well.”
She said all the farmers — like Top Crops — who get a booth at the market grow their produce within 250 miles of Utah’s capital. Resellers, who have become a problem at some markets in other metropolitan cities, are not allowed.
“We know every single vendor and where their farm is and how much they are growing,” said Einerson. Urban Food Connections of Utah, the nonprofit organization that runs the Downtown Farmers Market, Rio Grande Winter Market and Tuesday Harvest Market, does regular farm inspections to ensure that.
Einerson said Utah’s farming community remains relatively small and “everybody knows everybody. “That makes it “difficult to hide” if you’re not on the up and up, which is good news for consumers.
The market, which draws some 10,000 people to Pioneer Park each week, provides something more than just fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and melons, said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
“Farmers markets are crucial to the vitality of our city,” she said during a Wednesday news conference launching the annual event. “They are an economic driver, not just for farmers who live outside of the city, but for local food entrepreneurs and urban gardeners who live right here in Salt Lake City,”
Two of those entrepreneurs are Theobald and Musgrove, who join a venerable club of Utah farmers at the Downtown Market including Borski Farms — owner John Borski, of Kaysville, has been part of the market since it began in 1992 — and Alan Bangerter, a sixth-generation Utah farmer.
Many market customers may recognize the Top Crops owners. Last year, their first year in business, they sold produce at the Liberty Park Farmers Market; earlier this year, they were vendors at the Winter Market at the Rio Grande Depot.
Several Salt Lake City restaurants use their produce on the menu, including Amore Cafe and Laziz Kitchen. The success has allowed Theobald and Musgrove to quit their other jobs and be full-time farmers.
“We love growing food,” Theobald said. “It’s so nice to be outside. I had a desk job [as an apparel buyer for an athletic store] before this, and I knew I didn’t want to keep doing that.”
Musgrove has been farming longer, having worked at B.U.G. Farms — Backyard Urban Garden — for several seasons. They met when Theobald did an internship with a community-supported agriculture program.
Two years ago, the couple — both born and raised in Utah — purchased a house in the Guadalupe neighborhood of Salt Lake City and immediately ripped out the front and back lawns to grow vegetables to sell.
While they were tending to those crops, they were eyeing the empty lot across the street.
“We looked up on the tax rolls to see who owned it and then called to see if we could farm it,” Theobald said. The owner, who had been struggling to manage the weeds, agreed immediately.
While borrowing land isn’t an ideal business model, it’s the only way for young farmers to get started in the business, said Theobald.
Clearing weeds and prepping soil took some effort, but, on a recent morning, the plot was flush with produce — rainbow chard, kale, spinach, radishes, pea shoots, baby fennel and even edible flowers.
Top Crops has received two grants from Salt Lake City for seed planting and to help construct hoop houses that will lengthen the growing season — and increase vegetable production.
After lugging bins of produce back and forth, the couple were able to buy a used golf cart to travel between the lot and the house — where they wash, bag and refrigerate what is harvested.
While they aren’t as big as some of the farmers at the Saturday market, eventually, Theobald said, “We’d like to be able to grow a lot more food.”
Until then, she said, “We feel like we are growing into the farmers we want to become.”