New Inland Port project promises to save local farms. Can it?

The Central Utah Agri-Park project was approved with little resistance this week. Some worry it’s the wrong approach to sustaining agriculture.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Inland Port Authority executive director Ben Hart gives a presentation during an authority board meeting at the State Capitol, Thursday, May 11, 2023. Hart said the authority's project in Juab County will be an "economic multiplier across generations."

Farmers and elected officials representing some of the six counties included in Utah Inland Port Authority’s (UIPA) newest project, an agricultural transit and production hub, rejoiced at the news of its approval.

“I don’t know if I’m supportive of this if I can’t be there in person to celebrate,” said UIPA board member Ryan Starks, who was tuned in to the UPIA board’s Tuesday meeting virtually. “This is such a big deal to the state.”

The Central Utah Agri-Park Project is the fifth project approved by the Utah Inland Port Authority board. It will spread across roughly 35,000 acres in Juab County, according to a draft plan, split between three potential zones. As proposed, the project includes an industrial park, a rail site and the “Agri-Park” — a transit and processing hub for Utah farmers.

It is presented, in planning documents and public meetings, as something of a last stand for the agricultural community in Juab County and surrounding areas.

“The Agri-Park is expected to help make the region’s ‘family farms’ feasible again by increasing access to local protein, feed, dairy, fruit and vegetable processing, cold storage, and improved transportation infrastructure at feasible and sustainable pricing,” the draft plan says.

“Additionally, the Agri-Park will help solve the food supply chain shortages that were manifest during and after the global pandemic by having more, locally controlled food processing facilities and warehousing.”

“From day one, we’ve said we want to save the family farm,” Travis Khyl, executive director of Six County Association of Governments (AOG), which partnered with UIPA and includes Juab County, echoed in a news conference Tuesday. “[Farmers] are not going to get rich, but we have to provide farming and ranching as a viable career for our kids.”

(Utah Inland Port Authority) The Central Utah Agri Park will cover roughly 35,000 acres spread across three project sites.

The Agri-Park project, though, and the Inland Port Authority at large, have drawn skepticism about the speed at which projects are being approved and their possible environmental impacts. Many of the approved projects are on vulnerable wetlands. UIPA employees have said each project proposal includes an environmental review.

“My advice for Juab County is put on the brakes,” Courtney Henley, the sole dissenting voice in nearly two hours of meetings, said. “My heart bleeds for our farmers. What is wrong with our country that we’re not producing more food here and helping our farmers? … But put on the brakes; give it six years before you start spending too much money on the authority.”

Henley, a board member for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told The Tribune that her biggest concern is extra transportation traffic creating more air pollution.

“For reasons that we all know: it’s very bad for your health, very costly. You’re going to die earlier,” Henley said.

Opponents have also expressed worries that the Agri-Park will become a hub to export alfalfa and, by proxy, water. Alfalfa uses more of the state’s water than any other commodity. Its growers say it’s one of the few crops Utah’s climate can produce and is a critical piece of the state’s economy, but some Utahns are wary of investing heavily in such a water-dependent crop.

“We’re in a drought,” former Utah representative Elizabeth Weight said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “What I’m sensing is that the port, and the people promoting the port … have just gone to pretty extensive, expensive steps to portray this without including some of the reality.”

Project proponents said the Agri-Park will provide the space and infrastructure to fill critical gaps in agricultural production, especially in processing and shipping, and not just for alfalfa. Livestock farmers lose money sending their products out of state for processing and a processing facility close to home could make a big difference in farmers’ bottom lines.

“The cost of transportation eats up a lot of profit,” said Juan County Commissioner and farmer Marvin Kenison. “We need a way for farmers to make a living. Our kids aren’t going to want to come back unless they can make a living.”

UIPA has not yet named any of the Agri-Park’s future tenants.

Henley and Weight both said they were skeptical of the Authority’s capacity to save agriculture in the long-term.

Weight said her father left his family’s ranch for the same basic reason Juab County farmers are stressed: financial insecurity. But it wasn’t processing, Weight said, that killed her father’s ranch.

The state could build a meat processing facility, Henley said, without involving UIPA.

“What I’m hearing is really great ideas for processing,” Weight added, “but why does that take the port? They want to sell products here. Why does that take the port? It doesn’t.”

Proponents said this is what residents of Juab County and surrounding areas wanted. To consider a port project, local legislative bodies must first “provide written consent.” The Agri-Park was supported by Khyl’s six-county association, which UIPA Executive Director Ben Hart said is exactly the kind of collaboration the authority is about.

“We’re pushing forward a project that is really going to help, regionally, a lot of constituents,” Hart said.

The UIPA will next consider a roughly 20,000-acre fueling and logistics hub, split between four zones, in Beaver County. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.