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Cropping Up: What it takes to grow fresh food in Utah from a fourth-generation Cache Valley farmer

Utah food producers provide products that are unique to the state referred to as specialty crops, think fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, flowers and honey. In part one of the Cropping Up, series II, we visit a farm producing specialty crops across the Wasatch Front.

“Hi Evan, can you run down and move water on the potatoes?,” said Kelby Johnson to his brother Evan. “Yeah, do I have to fertilize them too?,” said Evan. “Yeah, do a half inch on that tank,” said Kelby Johnson.

That is what Kelby Johnson of the Johnson Family Farm in Cache Valley said to his brother on the cell phone as we drove in Kelby’s truck to one of their fields, located about five miles west of downtown Logan.

“We got a few russetts on the edge. They are watering the reds right now and these are all yukon gold.” Quinn: “What’s your most popular vegetable? Johnson: Corn, everybody wants corn and tomatoes. We grow a lot of potatoes because they are mechanized,” said Johnson.

What that means is using powered machinery versus human labor.

“We got orange and yellow watermelons, trying to hit the specialty market a little bit. A few bell peppers here, a couple rows of tomatoes there.”

Kelby and his brother Braydon are fourth generation farmers.

“It’s in your blood, you just can’t help it. It gets in your blood and you're stuck. We love agriculture. We love farming. It’s definitely challenging, sometimes it makes you heartsick but we love it, just everything about it,” said Kelby Johnson.

Their family farm goes back more than a century.

“Definitely learned a lot from dad and grandpa,” said Johnson.

It started as a dairy farm and the brothers eventually convinced their father to switch to produce.

“We’re just a little guy, we are about 100 acres. About half of that is in vegetable production and that takes a lot more work then a lot of farms around here. A lot more hands on,” said Johnson.

They sell their fruits and vegetables at their local produce stand in Logan, at farmer’s markets, to Utah State University, and in some grocery stores across the Wasatch Front and in Preston, Idaho.

“As much as I love what I do, because I love what I do, I still have to make money at the end of the day. This still is a business. Every dollar I spend here gets spent in this community another two or three times. You know with the price of fuel going up and up and transportation being more difficult, we need food here, where it’s easier to get to. You know you want security - food, water, shelter. You could run around naked if you had to!,” said Johnson.

Even though Kelby would like to grow more vegetables, the challenges of providing fresh local food are compounded by the cost and the quickly decreasing availability of land. Developers are grabbing up agricultural land at an unprecedented rate.

“Irrigated ground around here, you are talking ten thousand bucks an acre. You are really hard pressed to farm that out of it. It would take my whole life time to maybe get that paid off,” Johnson said.

Labor shortages are a big issue and that cuts down on the variety and amount of crops they can produce, mainly the ones that are labor intensive like zucchini and watermelon that have to be harvested by hand.

“We ought to be growing everything we can. I could sell them all day long but we don't have the people to get them picked,” said Johnson.

It’s getting more difficult to find farm workers. Hourly wages have increased and it’s hard to compete with other industries that pay more. When they first started farming specialty market vegetables they were paying workers $6 an hour, which was the going rate.

“Now if I don’t pay them $15, they are not even remotely interested. Even then it’s hard to get people to come for fifteen bucks. It’s outside, it’s hot and there’s bugs, you get scratched by the plants. Not many people want to do that anymore. People complain that a cup of raspberries costs $3.50, $4, $4.50 sometimes. Yeah, but I gotta pay someone to pick them,” said Johnson.

On top of that, Kelby says it’s hard to compete with Mexico.

“Their labor costs are dollars a day not dollars an hour. It's really hard to keep up with that,” said Johnson.

According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture, 77% of fresh vegetable imports originate from Mexico.

“In Mexico, in California, any of the real big big shippers, they are picking them at what they are calling ‘mature green’ and they turn red by the time they get here. And so you are not getting the quality that you would if it was close, and people see that. Everybody knows the difference between a store bought tomato and home grown or local grown tomato. They’ve improved the commercial stuff so it tastes a little better than it used to but it’s not the same, it’s just not the same!,” said Johnson.

But agriculture on Utah soil is causing tension along the Wasatch Front. And these specialty crop farmers who grow food are feeling the backlash.

“We are getting painted as these big water hogs because there’s only half a percent of us to say anything different. There’s a lot of silent victories,” said Johnson.

For instance, farmers have spent millions of dollars optimizing irrigation including pressurizing canals to curb evaporation, substituting sprinklers with drip systems, and they are replacing a lot of flood irrigation with pivots - an irrigation structure that depending on the size costs anywhere between $100,000 to $300,000. Kelby says that to have the wasatch front jumping up and down about water use is unfounded because it’s everybody’s problem, not just the farmers. These technologies cost a lot of money so public support is necessary. In other words, all hands on deck!

“The other thing most people don’t realize is the average age of a farmer is 67 years old. We really have a crisis in some regards coming. They are only going to last 5, 6 more years. They are tough old birds, they are probably going to go 10 to 12 more years because that is just the type of people they are. They never quit but at one point they will have to and then what do we do?” said Johonson.

And that’s why you see farms getting bigger and bigger, because the next generation either doesn’t want to take over or can’t afford to.

“And you know there are guys that are doing it, and there are kids coming on the farm. It's not all blues, it’s not all doomsday, but it’s definitely difficult. It’s going to become more of a critical thing here in the future. So I’ll guess we’ll see what the future brings. We are a resilient group of people so I’m sure we will figure it out,” said Johnson.

The good news is we can solve these problems; farmers aging out, the cost of land and labor, water optimization… We steer the future by going out to the farmers markets and buying our vegetables, local and fresh from farmers like Kelby Johnson.

Support for UPR’s Cropping Up is made possible with support from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food in partnership with USU’s Hunger Solutions Institute and Create Better Health Utah.

Sheri's career in radio began at 7 years old in Los Angeles, California with a secret little radio tucked under her bed that she'd fall asleep with, while listening to The Dr. Demento Radio Show. She went on to produce the first science radio show in Utah in 1999 and has been reporting local, national and international stories ever since. After a stint as news director at KZYX on northern California's Lost Coast, she landed back at UPR in 2021.