‘We’ll help you get started:’ This Utah group wants to help turn your garden into a farm.

Small Utah farms, big plans: community-based agriculture organizes for a future in Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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On a brilliant clear evening in March, Page Westover, owner of Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove, stood in front of her hydroponic greenhouse answering questions about the greens and herbs growing inside without soil in a medium of nutrient-enriched water. The questions lobbed by her audience were not softballs.

“What’s your total weekly production in plant mass?”

“How much water do you use per week?”

“What’s your energy consumption like and do you offset it in any way, such as with solar panels?”

Westover fielded these, and even more technical questions, framed by the farm’s incredible vista, which stretches from Lone Peak to Timpanogos.

“What more do you need from the community?” asked Mitch Dumke of 3Springs Land and Livestock.

For this group of small, independent agricultural producers and farm-to-table restaurant owners, the word “community” carries special weight.

Assembled from across the state in support of the Red Acre Center - a Cedar City-based nonprofit that is focused on education and advocacy for community agriculture - they represent a different kind of agriculture, one defined by its connection to those it feeds rather than its separation from them. Sometimes literally, as with Snuck Farm, which sits on family property that is now deep in the tangle of Utah County suburbia.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a global movement that has been around for decades, but it has struggled to take root in Utah.

“We’re late to the party,” said Symbria Patterson of Rec Acre Center and Red Acre Farm in Cedar City. “This movement has been around a long time and it’s grown and evolved around the country, and we’re just getting started. That’s a problem because pretty soon we won’t have any land.”

Red Acre Farm, which is owned by Patterson’s daughter Sara, who started it at age 12, produces a tremendous amount of food on just two acres, but those were purchased years ago in Iron County.

“Imagine trying to buy an acre right now in Utah County or Salt Lake just so you can start an experimental farm on it?” Patterson asks.

Yet Red Acre is trying to help small landowners do just that.

“On an acre or even a quarter acre,” said Patterson. “We’ll help you get started.”

What is community agriculture?

Shayn and Kristen Bowler of Utah Natural Meat and Milk could serve as the face of community agriculture in Utah. Shayn is a fifth-generation Utah farmer. Kristen is a transplant from the suburbs of Southern California. Like Snuck, their property in West Jordan was once isolated farmland that is now deep in the thicket of suburban growth.

For the Bowlers, community agriculture has layers of meaning.

“First, it means we serve our community,” Shayn said. “Right here. Most people don’t realize that the food they get from the grocery store comes from all over — China, Mexico, Brazil. Almost nothing local.”

Shayn says this should concern consumers, as we’ve seen the risks and vulnerabilities of relying on long supply chains during the pandemic.

“Farming is a hard, 24/7 job,” Kristen adds. “Being able to know and shake the hand of the person who eats the food we produce is important to me and I think it’s important to them.”

For the Bowlers, community extends across generations.

“It was important for us to give our kids the experience of working on a farm, working with the animals and being together in what we’re doing,” Kristen said.

Matt Eckelmann, head chef at Communal in Provo, echoed the Bowlers’ sentiments from a farm-to-table restaurant perspective.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt Eckelmann, head chef at Communal, photographed at Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

“We want to build this community by bringing together food from producers from Payson to Ogden and highlight the great, unique local food that’s growing right here in Utah,” Eckelmann said.

The vision of Red Acre farms pulls together these concepts of community.

“Our position is if you can feed yourself and your neighbor, you can feed the world,” Patterson said.

Small Agriculture vs. Big

These small, community-focused producers also have the odds stacked against them thanks to Utah laws and regulations which block small producers that want to sell directly to consumers. This, in part, is what had brought the producers together at a fundraiser to support the Red Acre Center.

Hosted inside the palatial Snuck Farm barn, the fundraiser featured a seven course dinner prepared by chefs from local restaurants with ingredients supplied by local producers. Donor-attendees sat at a table with at least one of the producers featured on the menu.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snuck Farm in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

The goal, said Patterson, is to move the Red Acre Center from something the Pattersons do in their spare time while not working the farm, to a semi-professional organization able to represent the interests of community agriculture to the public and the legislature.

While the Utah Legislature has plenty of members who work in agriculture, they all come from traditional agriculture — usually large cash crop farms, heavily reliant on industrial fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide, and in the business of growing alfalfa or a similar crop as feed for livestock.

At dinner, former representative Marc Roberts of Santaquin, spoke about the many bills he and others had passed — bills that have chipped out small victories for egg growers, raw milk producers, and even small home businesses selling pickled carrots and beets.

Roberts, who was a sponsor or ally on many of the bills, left the legislature in 2020.

“2021 was a big test for us at the legislature,” Patterson said, “but we got the microenterprise home kitchens passed.”

HB 94, sponsored by Rep. Christine Watkins (R-Price), legalizes the sale of home-cooked meals. Interested participants can receive a permit and, with an annual inspection from their local county health department, start selling food right away.

It’s seen as a low-risk way of testing out a restaurant, without the significant financial risk of actually opening a brick and mortar restaurant. It also may be a means to bring kitchens closer to the food they use, sourcing from backyard gardens.

For Patterson, however, the bill also represents the challenges ahead for the movement. In California, the only other state to have legalized home kitchen microenterprise, the program is handled county by county.

“There,” Patterson said, “People literally line up to get permits.”

In Utah, there hasn’t been a single applicant.

Patterson sees the need to amend the law to a county-based, and county-advertised program.

More legislative work

Despite the significant differences between traditional agriculture and community agriculture, Patterson believes there is more that unites the two than divides them.

“We should be hand-in-hand on most things,” Patterson said, “It’s outside forces that divide us.”

Specifically, Patterson pointed to companies like Monsanto (now Bayer), and other agrochemical and genetically modified food giants.

They make farmers dependent on their products and then they turn traditional farmers into advertisers for them. Then they tell traditional agriculture that organic farming is out to destroy them,” Patterson said. “Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to be divided.”

Patterson sees the answer, not surprisingly, in building a community of farmers. Most of what the Red Acre Center does is not advocacy, but education, network building, speaking to school groups and organizing conferences.

“I want to see the big hay farmer working with people like my daughter and Red Acre,” Patterson said, “that’s the community we need most right now.”