Summer means the start of tourist traffic down Fruit Way, the popular stretch of Highway 89 running along farms and orchards mostly from Perry to Willard.
But as tourists select bushels of hand-picked peaches, browse the large piles of carefully placed melons or marvel at the mouth-watering array of locally grown veggies, they may not notice, beyond the few iconic fruit stands they visit, the landscape is changing.
Thayne Tagge of Tagge’s Famous Fruit and Veggies has watched the transformation since he bought his first farm in late 1990s.
“It’s like everything went up for sale this year. I don’t know what the deal is,” he said last June.
Tagge is talking about Fruit Way’s family-owned farms, which are increasingly being sold to developers and turned into subdivisions with names like “Orchard Creek Estates.”
The reason Fruit Way orchards are productive is because they’re on hills above the valley, protected from frost and warmed by rocky cliffs. But those views also make for some desirable residential lots, and because Fruit Way is pinched between the Wasatch Front and the Great Salt Lake, there’s not a lot of land available. That’s driving up property values.
‘Houses thick as apples’
“I don’t know of one person, since I bought my land in 1997, who’s bought land for farming since I have,” Tagge said.
Residential lots in Fruit Way developments are selling fast, with 3,000 square-foot three-car garage homes with $300,000 price tags springing up just as quickly as the trees are ripped out.
“Here’s what I’ve learned. When it hits third generation, it’s done,” Tagge said. “People have lost interest, there’s no one connected to the land and they see dollar signs. It’s usually old land that’s prime-o real estate, and it just goes.”
Gay Pettingill is one of the few farmers bucking that trend. At 90, he’s still farming around 100 acres along Fruit Way with help from his son and daughter.
“We’re going to have houses as thick as apples on a tree,” Pettingill said. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, we hope you don’t sell (your) property.’ They like to see the orchard ... We’d have a lot more money than we’re making now, but money isn’t everything.”
It’s hard to pin down exact figures on how much farmland along Fruit Way is getting gobbled up by development, but aerial photographs show the sprawl has sped up over the past 10 years. Perry City officials said they noticed residential growth pick up in the early 2000s, then take off a few years after the recession.
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“It’s been consistent,” said Perry City Mayor Karen Cronin. “I have memories of picking cherries — those are fun memories. When I saw that orchard go down, there was a twinge of sadness. But good people have moved into town. It’s just change, and change is hard.”
Where the fruit grows
Utah’s most productive land for growing fruit and vegetables lies along the Wasatch Front. But urban growth keeps moving farmland to the region’s fringes. Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties developed 135,000 acres between 1988 and 2008, according to the Utah Agricultural Sustainability Task Force.
Today, Utah County produces most of the state’s tree fruit, followed by Box Elder County. But local farms only produce around 3 percent of the fruits and 2 percent of the vegetables Utahns consume, according to an Envision Utah study.
Click to see a full breakdown of the numbers.
From a market standpoint, the shift in fruit production makes sense. Fruit grows better in sunny California, Florida and South America. With relatively low transportation costs, it makes sense to import those commodities so Utahns can focus on producing other things, like cattle and hay.
“As an economist, I would say when we produce goods and services, we want to do it as efficiently as possible, which means using less of our scarce resources and being more cost-effective,” said Therese Grijalva, a professor of economics at Weber State University. “If our land isn’t suitable for certain kinds of food production, it makes sense to have those goods imported.”
But Grijalva said it’s also important to consider the non-market effects of our food system. There’s an environmental cost to importing fruit and vegetables that’s tricky to assess economically. It’s hard to assign a dollar value to have orchards along the Wasatch Front, but it’s worth something.
"When you think about large-scale food producers — using lots of pesticides, the transportation of food in from outside the community — there will be more pollution, a non-market effect,” Grijalva said. “It is a cost of production that is not captured in the price (of food).”
Utahns say they want more of their food produced locally, but the population is predicted to double by 2050. That creates a conundrum for Fruit Way. Ninety-six percent of Utah’s orchards are in areas experiencing the most rapid urban growth, according to a 2012 study by the Utah Agriculture Sustainability Task Force.
The state’s growing population could move to denser urban housing, but Tagge thinks larger, quarter-acre-plus lots will continue to hold more appeal.
“Families don’t want to do that. They want to live right here,” he said. “They want a yard and an old peach tree in the back so they can say to their friends, ‘Hey, this used to be an orchard.’”
Preserving Fruit Way
While some Utah communities have worked to protect farmland through conservation easements or zoning restricts, Mayor Cronin said she doesn’t want to restrict property owners in Perry.
“(We) want to see the farming preserved, but the farmers, you don’t want to take away their right to their land,” she said. “If they want to put it in a development, that’s their right.”
She said the city could help preserve Fruit Way’s orchards and the rights of landowners by buying land when farmers decide to sell. But that money would have to come from taxpayers.
“If citizens said, ‘we as a community feel we need to protect these lands,’ we could buy them and have someone contracted to run the orchards,” she said. “People say they want the orchards, but no one has said they want to pay higher taxes to protect them.”
Farmers also need to earn enough to stay in business. Tagge found a successful niche by only selling his produce at farmers markets, through CSAs or at his fruit stands. People in urban areas, he said, are willing to pay more when they buy directly from a farmer. Still, he acknowledged farming is hard work, and it’s not just the labor.
“First of all you’ve got to grow good fruit, then you’ve got to learn how to market,” he said. “Then you’ve got to be a social media expert, then you’ve got to learn how to speak Spanish and get along with your workers, then you’ve got control costs and make sure you’re making money.”
Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said he feels optimistic about the future of farming in Utah. Polls continually show Utahns want more locally produced food, but they can only preserve places like Fruit Way through their dollars and habits.
“Support a farmer any way you can, look for local foods. Shop at farmers markets, look for foods, with the ‘Utah’s Own’ label,” he said. “Support policies that make it easy for a farmer to stay in business and make a profit.”
“People seriously don’t even know where a blackberry comes from. It’s crazy to me. When they come up here to look at the trees, it’s an awe factor to them,” he said. “There’s such a disconnect. But farming is cool ... There’s nothing cooler than buying fruit from a local fruit stand.”