Perry • The fruit is ripening on Box Elder County’s sun-drenched benches, drawing people from across Utah and neighboring states who will load up on juicy peaches, cherries, apples, apricots and more.
The area has been beloved for its fruit for more than a century. Brigham City held its first Peach Days celebration in 1904. In the decades after, as rustic produce stands sprang up along Highway 89, the stretch between Perry and Willard became known as “Fruit Way.” It’s a destination to stock up on pickling cucumbers, Halloween pumpkins, and, of course, Utah’s famous peaches, all by the bushel.
Pettingill Fruit Farm, one of the largest family operations on the route, has been in business for more than 70 years. It has regular visitors from as far away as Casper, Wyo., perusing stalls of produce plucked from the fields that morning, arranged in mouthwatering displays. Steve Pettingill, the farm’s current operator, considers his employees artists, not laborers.
“When I have you pick,” he said he tells them, “I want it to look like a work of art in that box. I want this to be your painting. So when the customers come here, they look at it and say ‘wow.’”
But Fruit Way’s famous stands are fading away. The trees and veggies are getting torn out, replaced by subdivisions with names like “Cherry Ridge” and “Orchard Hills” as homages to the past. And while some homebuyers are gaining a new house on a quarter-acre lot with a view, Utah is losing some of its best ground for growing fruit.
The Wasatch Front’s benches hold springtime warmth, sheltering crops from frosts that settle in the valley. The rocky soils are ideal for stone fruit trees, which like to dry out between watering. The weather currents generated by Willard Bay and the mountain canyon winds create just the right microclimate for Box Elder County’s orchards.
A few miles north or west, and the temperatures are a few degrees different. That’s all it takes for a fruit crop to fail.
“You’re getting it where you can count them on one hand,” Pettingill said of his fellow Fruit Way farmers. “When I was a younger guy, there used to be 30 or 40.”
Farming under pressure
Utah’s agricultural industry has received a lot of blowback during the current “megadrought” and the public health hazard posed by the shrinking waters of the Great Salt Lake. But much of that ire is reserved for alfalfa hay.
Fruits and vegetables, it seems, are different. They offer an opportunity to connect with growers, whether at a rural stand or an urban farmers market. Orchard visits make for a fun weekend jaunt, an Instagram-worthy photo backdrop, a chance to learn about Utah’s roots. The farms give Utahns a way to sample some delicious produce, above and beyond what they can find at the nearest supermarket.
“We’ve been accused of making people ‘peach snobs,’” Pettingill laughed.
Visitors drop by his stand in search of specific varieties, like Elberta, Roza or Angelus, thinking they’ve developed a particular taste for that particular kind of peach.
“What [really] happened is, they came at the right time, and we picked it at the right time,” Pettingill said. “They remember that experience.”
The experience — of pleasantly soft fruit, with its intoxicating smell, sweet flesh, and juice that dribbles down the chin — comes only with produce that’s locally grown.
“They can’t be shipped a long distance when they’re beautiful and ripe,” Pettingill said. “They’ve got to stay real close to where the market is.”
Many Utah fruit and veggie growers have adopted water-efficient practices, too. They take advantage of drip irrigation, micro-sprinklers and plastic mulch instead of relying on the flood or pivot irrigation systems used in many hayfields — so much so that all of the farmers interviewed for this story said they feel little stress, at least from a business perspective, about Utah’s recent water shortages.
Utah’s fruit industry feels pressure in plenty of other ways, though. Orchards are far more labor intensive than highly mechanized alfalfa farming. And area labor is hard to find. Farmers increasingly rely on immigrant workers using the federal H2-A program, which requires they provide housing and transportation in addition to hourly wages. Inflation, too, has driven up the cost of fuel, fertilizer and other materials. But prices still have to stay competitive with the produce sections at big-box stores.
Meanwhile, as with the rest of Utah, property values are skyrocketing. Pre-pandemic, Fruit Way’s orchards started selling to developers for around $60,000 an acre, the farmers say. That price jumped to $80,000 an acre. Then, just this year, an orchard sold for a whopping $200,000 an acre.
“It escalates the price of farmland, and nobody can get back into farming,” Pettingill said. “There’s no way.”
Pettingill may well be the end of the line for his 130-acre farm. No family members, he said, want to carry on the business.
“Who would want to?” the farmer wondered.
A fading local fruit supply
Just down the road, Jordan Riley is a young farmer trying to continue Fruit Way’s legacy.
Since 2014, he has leased most of his 200 acres from a family who inherited a farm but lost interest in the fruit business.
“Personally, I worry about the security of depending on my food coming from thousands of miles away,” he said, especially after the pandemic proved supply chains hang by a thread.
It’s hard to say for sure how many orchards have been lost through the years. Envision Utah reported 14,000 acres in fruit production in 1987, but only 6,000 acres in production by 2006.
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census of Utah, however, counted 8,419 acres in fruit farms in 2017, an increase from 7,846 acres in 2012. Still, the overall trend is one of decline. USDA reported more than 10,000 acres in fruit farms in the 1990s and as many as 15,000 acres in the 1980s.
Of the large tract that Riley farms, he owns only 10 acres — what he calls his “token orchard.” The rest of his farm is on the verge of being sold out from under him, including his fruit stand and base of operations, to a group of developers. He had to retain lawyers and battle the sale in May, right when farming season was about to begin.
“That was a real debacle,” he said. “The dollar amount this sold for was staggering.”
The deal remains in legal limbo.
“We used to always say, you can’t farm your way out of $20,000 an acre, and stuff around here is going for $200,000 now,” Riley said, sorting cherries from an old conveyer his grandfather built. “The main point of the story is, enjoy this while it’s here, because it’s going.”
He’s trying to leverage his own 10 acres by turning half into a denser, eco-friendly development, keeping the other half as a boutique orchard, then using the profit to buy more farmland before it’s gone.
“It’s a pretty harebrained idea because no one’s done that around here,” he said, noting that sprawling houses with big yards are more the norm in Perry’s new subdivisions.
The city has been receptive to his proposal, he said. With property owners’ rights there’s not much else city leaders can do to preserve farmland, short of using taxpayer money to buy it up themselves, and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that (Perry Mayor Kevin Jeppsen declined to comment for this story).
“They don’t want to become a city with a peach in its logo,” Riley said, “and absolutely no peaches growing.”
Even so, he predicted northern Utah doesn’t have much of a future left in fruit farming.
“Once we’re pushed out of this area, you can go gamble somewhere else. But why?” Riley asked. “There’s a lot of strikes against farming in the first place. If you can’t have a consistent harvest, you’ve got problems.”
‘We’ve been shoved into this corner’
He has personal experience with the fickle nature of fruit farming in other parts of the state. Down south, his brother Chris Riley runs the family’s third-generation fruit orchard in Utah County. This season, Chris Riley lost 90% of his peach crop to frost.
“This area, it’s pretty good for [growing], but it’s not ideal,” he said, while surveying his trees on a hillside in Genola with a sweeping view of hayfields and pastures. “The better fruit ground was the Orem bench, but that’s got WordPerfect and I don’t know how many homes on it now.”
Genola is a rare rural pocket in booming Utah County, one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. Even with its sprawling technology campuses and mushrooming subdivisions, the county is still home to the most fruit farms in the state. In 2012, the most recent year with county-level USDA data, Utah County had about 6,000 acres in orchards compared to 853 acres in Box Elder County.
“We’ve kind of been shoved into this corner,” Chris Riley said.
But the farmer says he still feels pressure from development and soaring property values.
“You have to really maximize what you’re growing and get the most money you can to justify staying here,” he said, “because this ground is getting so valuable.”
He’s tried farmers markets, but they’re labor intensive. He tried a fruit stand in Midvale, but it didn’t get enough traffic. Instead, Chris Riley has found his niche delivering fruit to customers in Beaver, Kanab and Panguitch in southern Utah — “areas that seemed a little more underserved as far as produce,” he said, “and were excited we were there, period.”
Highest use of the land?
Back up along Fruit Way, Thayne Tagge said he’s determined to keep produce farming a viable industry.
An accountant by training, Tagge pivoted careers in the late 1990s. He bought an orchard in Perry, before property values went bananas, and decided to become a fruit farmer.
“I want this legacy to continue,” Tagge said, adding that he’s actively talking to retiring growers or family members who have inherited farms. “If somebody wants to keep it [as farmland], I’d be glad to run out, grab it and buy it.”
Tagge has built a profitable business selling his produce at famers markets and running a popular service that delivers weekly boxes to subscribers across the Wasatch Front.
He now owns a patchwork of about 80 acres across Box Elder County. His latest acquisition is a 5-acre lot next to the freeway that he turned into a blackberry patch three years ago.
“We got lucky and bought it at $17,000 an acre,” Tagge said over the din of semitrucks and passenger cars barreling by at 80 mph.
Tagge makes his payments on that land by leasing ground for two massive billboards — the only source of shade under the baking summer sun.
“I mean, you could see a car dealership here or something like that,” Tagge said, “but I’m a totally different mindset.”
He pointed out all the orchards and fields, one after another, sold to developers in just the few decades since he came to town, some with backhoes actively grading the dirt and dropping in utility lines. He counted the handful of family farms left, many run by octogenarians with declining health.
“Once it hits kind of the third generation, I don’t know,” Tagge said. “People don’t appreciate what they have. Or there’s too many fingers in the pie. Or one son’s running it, and the others are jealous.”
He figures all the farmland he owns its currently worth millions, but he insists he’ll never sell. He plans to put it in a trust and even has a daughter ready to take up the business when the time comes.
“The highest use of this land is to keep it in orchards,” he said, “and I’m going to do everything I can to keep it in orchards.”
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