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HISTORIC HAPPENINGS October 2010

Moab is Great for Growing Tomatoes
Photos and story by Vicki Barker

Clark's Orchard tractor
Peach blossoms, old tractor and barn cat before condo development.

That’s about it in a nutshell, if you want a sure thing, or fantasize about becoming a rich farmer here. Under prevailing conditions, that is. Which means climate and culture.

Under ideal circumstances, Moab would never have an early onset of spring that fools fruit trees into blossoming, only to be zapped by the icy finger of a late freeze that kills or seriously diminishes that year’s crop. Every other year it seems the same thing happens.

Ideally, people would stampede local fruit and vegetable stands and farmers markets, casting aside concerns about cost, taking comfort instead in supporting local growers and enjoying the fruits of their labors -- such as huge, juicy, tasty tomatoes, home-grown, picked fresh; as opposed to the “cardboard-tasting” variety available at chainstore markets.

Unfortunately, and even more so as time advances, it seems, the weather is fickle and lower prices of shipped-in goods has always prevailed. The cost of local production, especially labor, and the unpredictability of the weather have tended to be prohibitive of Moab growing growers. But there are encouraging signs in the fields -- and pastures, for that matter.

Over the past few years, more local growers have been organizing to provide home-grown produce, at least one rancher has made a stab at selling locally-grown beef, another resident has serious plans to start a dairy and produce Moab milk, and another grower is looking at the prospect of starting a chicken ranch.

Ironically, the growing presence of “Doomsday” gloom is adding some zeal to local farming efforts. Imagine what would happen if suddenly the trucks didn’t deliver? What if there was a national disaster that stopped all transportation?

“The day is going to come -- we’re too dependent on trucking,” said Brian Ballard, who works a 20-acre field in east Moab to grow tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupe, peppers, apples, nectarines and peaches. Ballard is familiar with the robust agricultural activity of Moab’s past, dating at least back to 1896, and he points out that Moab produce used to be shipped all over the country.

According to The History of Grand County (Firmage, 1996) Moab even sent railcar loads of apples and pears to England. In its heyday, the Moab market boasted 14-ounce peaches and 25-ounce apples from local orchards and gardens, according to historical accounts penned by Faun McConkie Tanner.

“I’m interested in picking this back up, and let’s start doing this ourselves,” Ballard said. No one likes to think about “Doomsday,” he said, “But we need to be ready. We should think about that, but also think “healthy” as well.”

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Old barn shed where apples were sold gave way to condos.

Moab agriculture is a tough market, says Ballard and Michael Johnson, Grand County’s extension agent with Utah State University. Still, it seems more and more people are becoming willing to tough it out.

“Labor is the big issue,” Johnson said. Maintaining a sizeable orchard like Ballard’s 1,600 trees is labor-intensive, and profits – if there are any – are “very slim,” Johnson said. Unless you are a grape-grower with license to make wine. The state so far has allowed only two wine-producers in Grand County – the Spanish Valley and Castle Creek wineries.

“We could be having a huge industry here if the state legislature supported it (wine-making).” Johnson said vineyards in the Grand Junction area have developed into a $1 million-per-month industry. “Whether you agree or not with drinking wine, the profit per acre is high. It’s kind of a shame we haven’t been able to do that.”
In the meantime, several organic farm and orchard businesses are still hard at work, such as Manzana Springs and Castle Valley Farms, while others have more recently entered agri-business: Sol Food Farms, Ballard’s Mill Creek Estates, and Creekside Organics.

“I respect all the work they’re putting out…but the fact is, a lot of people don’t want to farm. There’s no get-up-and-go, and desire to farm. People aren’t stepping forward as you’d think they would.” Johnson said.

The extension agent tracks all issues related to agri-business in this end of the state, with an office supported by the land-grant college in Logan and county funding. He said Moab has some of the best soils or combination of soil and water, along with the kind of heat that a lot of crops need, which suggests the community has an opportunity that other areas like Carbon and Emery counties don’t, to replenish and sustain the food supply.

Besides tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and melons, this area is good for growing squash, cucumbers, eggplant, beans, herbs, ocre, carrots, potatoes, corn, cabbage, Swiss chard, strawberries and cherries.

Agriculture, irrigation, local food production, renewable energy, and ecologically responsible land use questions were among other issues put to the public in an electronic “verification” poll conducted by the county in July to determine if a “vision” for updating the 2004 General Master Plan coincided with people’s views of the future here. More than half the respondents liked a future in which “local food and renewable energy productin make us more self-sufficient,” and where “open space is integrated into development, adding recreational amenities while preserving scenery and agricultural/irrigated land.”

With that poll in hand, a 15-member “working group” of volunteers has begun meeting to help draft changes to the master plan in response to changing demographics, the economy, and land-use needs. Their suggestions will be presented to the public for additional input in November, and their task will probably be completed in December, said Planning and Zoning Administrator Mary Hofhine. From that point, people will have further opportunity to share their visions of our local future at hearings of the Planning & Zoning Commission, and ultimately the County Commission.
Emily Niehaus, of the nonprofit Community Rebuilds organization, is a member of the working group. She emphasizes the “intrinsic value” of agriculture in this rural area, and said, “I think that, not just economically today but in the future, we’re going to be valuing the land that will need to feed 7,000.”

Niehaus favors keeping agricultural zones intact, and being careful in planning for land use to encourage farming, in case the economy worsens and Moab needs to grow its own food.

 
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