Utah’s 3rd annual Farm & Food conference breeds enthusiasm and new ideas
Chickens are a great role model for kids. They wake up rarin’ to go, they put themselves to bed early, and they eat whatever you put in front of them.” Those were just a few of the words of wisdom from Joel Salatin at the 2019 Utah Farm & Food Conference in Cedar City last month, attended by quite a few Salt Lake City area farmers, gardeners and food lovers.
Salatin, a self proclaimed Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer, stressed the importance of “reducing over-burdensome food regulations, restoring organic matter in the soil and hanging out in our kitchens among the how-to steps to an integrated and healing future.” Salatin masterminded Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He transformed a worn-out unproductive farm into a diversified, grass-based, beyond-organic, direct-marketing farm that supports three generations. Can we feed the world? As Joel told us, “We are the only ones who can.”
My Utah Farm & Food Conference journey began early on Thursday, January 3 with the Pre-Conference Farm Tour. Conference co-organizer, Symbria Patterson of Red Acre Center, shepherded a bus full of gardeners, homesteaders and farmers first to Jones Farm, located just outside of Cedar City.
The thermometer read 8 degrees, plenty warm for Craig Jones and his dad to sport their baseball caps. It was so special to be out on the land and see the dog herd a large flock of sheep with just a few soft words of instruction from Craig. Come early spring, it’s all hands on deck for the lambing, when up to 3,500 lambs are born.
Next stop, the Moapa Valley and Quail Hollow Farm, 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Monte and Laura Bledsoe have defied all of the local so-called experts who proclaimed it would be impossible to earn a living in the desert by growing veggies. Laura and Monte have been doing just fine for 13 years and have added turkeys, sheep, chickens, pigs and rabbits to the farm.
Thanks to Monte, they also have an amazing assortment of homemade work-saving gadgets, like the washing machine salad spinner. After a wonderful lunch featuring homemade wood-fired pizza, we were on the road north to Cedar City…or so I thought.
A visit with the Bundys
“Are you up for another farm?” asked Symbria. We were actually going to a ranch, the Bundy Ranch. As our tour bus navigated the narrow dirt road leading into the ranch, a woman driving toward us stopped and inquired, “Are you lost?!!” Symbria assured her that we, in fact, were not lost, but I was not alone in wondering exactly how all this would turn out.
“BUNDY RANCH: CATTLE MELONS & KIDS.” So said the sign in front of the house. Cliven warmly greeted us and proceeded to explain how he grows prize melons and broccoli in the desert. Amazingly, he and his family do this while irrigating just twice in an area of the country that gets less than six inches of annual rainfall and temperatures reach well into the 100s during the summer.
Cliven’s dry-land method consists of deep plowing, deep irrigation, vacation to let it dry out a bit, light disking to loosen the top few inches of soil, planting five feet apart and then irrigating again in 70 days. The top four inches of soil dry out after the plant roots reach down into the water reservoir that is trapped by the top crust of dried, packed soil. Voila, no evaporation and very few, if any weeds. The long roots gather minerals from the soil and the plants and fruits thrive in the heat.
Cliven explained that he does use chemical fertilizer, but no pesticides or herbicides. His desire to fully explain his method and the science behind it, along with the short walk onto one of his fields, made it obvious that the tour would go well past the 6p.m. end time. The conference schedule did disclaim “End Time Not 100% Dependable!” It was sooo worth it.
Symbria and her daughter, Sara, have packed the Utah Farm and Food Conference with so many inspiring growers of food and raisers of animals. Knowing where your food is from and how it was grown or raised was a common theme.
Solutions for developing resilience and regenerating or repairing our depleted land were everywhere during the conference, with presenters of all ages. Two of the younger standouts were Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frog Farms near Sebastopol, California. This dynamic duo tag-teamed their way through a keynote talk on regenerative agriculture and then dove really deep during a fast-paced 2.5 hour “Carbon Farming for Profit” workshop. The Kaisers were quick to point out that their ecological practices for building healthy soil and growing super nutritious food, while netting $100,000 per acre, could be utilized in many parts of the world, not just California. We heard about pollinator attracting hedgerows, no-till, steady compost application, minimal water inputs, and investing in people, not equipment. Many small farmers are adopting the strategies that Elizabeth and Paul have developed over time. Was this a preview of the future of farming? Let’s hope so.
Inspiring resiliency in Boulder, Utah
Resilience is the ability of a system, such as a local economy or community, to withstand shock and then adapt to that shock. It’s the ability of people to flex, adapt and to change, and think on their feet in any given situation. This definition comes from the Transition Town movement. Ten members of the Boulder Skills Foundation discussed how they are inspiring resiliency in Boulder, Utah. We learned about the Boulder Spring Bash, Harvest Festival, soil health, importance of a local fibershed, Utah Water Guardians, tool share, seed collective and the town free box. (When Scott mentioned the free box, most of the panel members smiled and boasted that they were wearing something from the free box!) The Foundation even offers people grants so they can attend training to learn new skills. Josh summed it up well: “To build a resilient community requires resilient people.” For a town with just 180 residents, Boulder seems to be well on its way to resiliency.
The Utah Farm & Food Conference was so much more than speakers and workshops. It was a chance to meet and share experiences and ideas with people from Utah and beyond. It was about enjoying local food—all meals were eaten together, augmented with evening bites and beverages. It was a grand place to regenerate the mind and soul at the very beginning of the new year.
Jim French is the project manager for Playground East Forest Garden.