WEST HAVEN — To the rear of Phil Green's home — behind the vegetable garden, tiny horse pasture and stable — single-family homes stretch off into the distance.
Just three or four years back, before he sold the 56-acre tract to developers, the land was wide open, housing his dairy farm, the operation his father and grandfather ran before him. During growing season, he'd plant corn or hay.
"It rocked me a little bit," Green said, seated in the living room of his home, on the 3.5-acre piece of land he kept off 4700 West on the west end of West Haven. "It was hard to let it go."
Even now, memories of his life working the land — now housing 100-plus homes with more under construction — sometimes come back, particularly when he strolls through the new subdivision. "I take a walk down there and cry every once in a while. But I'm glad I had the opportunity to sell mine," said Green, who's 66.
As Weber County's population surges, as more people move in, more and more farmland in the western part of the county is giving way to homes and subdivisions. The shift has been the source of handwringing among those most connected to Weber County's agricultural heritage, those who moved to the western part of the county because of its rural, country feel. At the same time, the shift has given many farmers, like Green, a means they might not otherwise have to comfortably retire.
Weber County Commissioner Scott Jenkins, who's from Plain City, itself a community that has increasingly encroached on farmland, has heard the stories. He has talked to farmers like Green who have made the decision, sometimes tough, sometimes easy, to sell. Working the land, particularly on the relatively small farms that characterize Weber County, is getting tougher and tougher and many are making similar calls to Green's.
"Life's tough on them. They struggle even making a profit," Jenkins said.
As such, when demand for land is so strong, when farmers can make what Jenkins has been told is $60,000 to $80,000 an acre by selling to developers, it almost becomes a no-brainer. "If you have 10 acres, you have almost a million dollars," he said.
Indeed, while acknowledging nostalgia for the county's agricultural heritage, Jenkins also sees the raw economics of the ongoing shift and understands what farmers are up against. "It will all naturally happen on its own. It's dollars and cents. It's the economic cycle we live in," he said.
Despite it all, Sharon Bolos, the mayor of West Haven, Weber County's fastest growing city due in part to the proximity of wide open, developable land, says reminders of the rural past remain. She hears from residents who note the laid-back feel of the city, cites city ordinances that allow keeping of certain farm animals on larger land parcels, and points to the activity at the city-owned arena, which draws horse riders daily.
"If you can keep that alive in your community, I think that's great," she said.
Even so, the change can be rocky, even if it's inevitable, even if reminders of the past linger.
Henry Prevedel and his two sisters recently sold a 60-acre parcel of farmland off 1800 South in northern West Haven that their father started farming in 1941. The land is to be turned into a housing subdivision and the shift drew the opposition of some neighbors, worried about disruption and traffic brought on by new homes. The developer ultimately scaled the plans back, reducing the number of planned housing units to resolve the dispute. But still, scars remain.
"I'll tell you, it has been very emotional," said Prevedel's wife Terry, citing the controversy and the looming change to the land. "It's been hard to know it's not going to be the farm, it's going to be homes."
The Prevedels take heart in the fact that the planned development is to contain housing geared to a broad range of income levels, that it'll create space for people to have their own homes. And they'll hold onto one-and-a-quarter acres of land, the parcel where their home sits.
Whatever the case, they say they may get out of town when the developers start clearing the land, or when they tear down the home next door where Henry Prevedel's mom had lived. That'd just be too much to watch.
Henry Prevedel, 71, references his late parents and expressed hope that they'd bless the decision to sell. Though he and his sisters had been talking about selling the land for the past 15 years or so, he held out as long as he could. "We hope they're up there saying it's time," he said.
THE EXPANSION OF SUBURBIA
Through it all, larger factors have figured in the transition and in the decisions of Green and others to sell their farmland. Notably, the economies of scale aren't always there to run the relatively small farms of Weber County. "There was a day when you would make a living on 200 acres," said Bolos.
As a farmer, Green found himself just getting by, reinvesting all earnings back into the 60-acre operation. He couldn't save to create a retirement fund. "It's tough to work seven days a week, 365 days a year and basically break even," Green said.
What's more, Green's four adult kids weren't interested in taking over the operation, carrying on the farming tradition, even if the decision to sell was tough on them as well. Henry Prevedel had leased his land to another farmer.
"It's to the point where farming is so difficult and kids can make more money doing something else," Green said.
And though some may lament the expansion of suburbia into what was once an agricultural stronghold, the shift underscores what for many is fundamental principle in the United States — the right of property owners to do what they want with their land. "I don't know how you can control what another person does with their property," Green said.