This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s greatest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Stan Jensen’s soil in Centrefield was baked into a brittle alkaline crust in October. Passing by patches of land that would in a normal year be green alfalfa, two small shadows chased us.
“Oh, they love it here,” Jensen said, referring to his son and daughter following us and playing with the dormant shaft sprinkler. “Go barefoot for adventure and we don’t have to worry about where they are.”
For generations, the Jensen family has cultivated several hundred acres in the middle of Gunnison Valley to grow Utah’s staple, alfalfa.
After the past few weeks of snow and decent rainfall, it’s easy to forget how arid Utah just a few months ago was. That is, unless you are a farmer.
The Gunnison Valley has been particularly hard hit by this summer’s drought, and much of Jensen’s land is empty.
“This year has been a bad year,” Jensen stood in his almost-empty haystack, “but we have had seven consecutive years of drought. The banks on the mainland have water, but the drought is building up and we’ve been overdrafted for seven years. A good year won’t save us. “
Jensen is a born farmer, but a trained engineer. It was his daughter Samantha that brought him back to the family farm.
“I want the kids to have this experience,” says Jensen, but he worries about whether a future in farming is possible for his children. “We have to change the way we think about agriculture if family farms are to continue in Utah.”
To build a more sustainable future, Jensen is disrupting generations of conventional farming by turning to best practices that draw from organic farming, permaculture and other sustainable practices.
Jensen believes these practices can help the family farm through the coming dry years to some extent.
“There is no manual for this,” Jensen said, “I’m sure there are others on this path, but unfortunately I don’t know them.”
500 acre laboratory
For Stan Jensen, the big question is how to get more organic matter in the ground.
“In terms of drought tolerance, organic materials are everything,” says Jensen. “1% organic material can hold 3 inches of water per foot.”
Jensen says his soil is about 2% organic material. “But if I’m at 10%, I can live well for a year and survive the drought.”
Organic material comes in the form of Jensen’s 60 cattle heads grazing on property grounds, turning weeds and dried alfalfa into croissants. His daughter also contributed to carrying the flock of chickens that were systematically moved across the land, following the cows.
Instead of tilling, Jensen relies on a growing population of earthworms that eat cow cakes to work the soil for him. “Previously, we would burn 4,000 gallons of fuel a year just by tilling the ground.”
Under the no-till system, they burn only a few hundred gallons.
Jensen offers more than just water conservation and emissions reductions. By thinking of farming like direct-to-consumer gardeners selling their wares at farmers’ markets, Jensen believes that family farms in Utah can not only become sustainable in a short period of time. dry future but also profitable.
“A market gardener can make $4 per square foot,” says Jensen. “Your average farmer makes just over 2 cents per square foot.”
Jensen admits that gardening on the market also takes more work, “but there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”
When asked why more and more agricultural producers are not moving towards holistic farming practices, Jensen points out again that there are no manuals.
“You know who’s educating us?” Jensen says, “Monsanto spends a billion dollars a year educating us. Bayer spends a lot. That is where our education originates.”
The result, for farmers often on the brink of financial ruin, is an unsustainable reliance on high-tech agricultural producers.
Jensen points to the magic of fungi, which are necessary for plants to draw minerals from the soil. “Look, it’s easier to kill all the fungi,” says Jensen. So they wanted me to go first in the spring and spray the fungicides. Then an herbicide, to kill all the plants.”
The result is less and less carbon in the soil from year to year, more reliance on tillage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and poorer water holding capacity from year to year. , Jensen said.
Alternative farmer education
Although Wyoming offers little education to help agricultural producers adopt more sustainable methods, there are other places they can turn to. Red Acre . Center in Cedar City, Utah, serves as a regional center of education and advocacy for smallholder farmers, organic farmers, and traditional farmers like Stan Jensen who are looking to transition.
Red Acre is also a 2-acre organic farm running community-supported agriculture (CSA) in Cedar City.
“When we started,” says director Sara Patterson, “people used to say, ‘CSA? United States of America?'”
With CSA, consumers purchase shares of agricultural products in advance. For Red Acre, it’s about creating community. CSA members are encouraged to volunteer on the farm.
“We still have volunteers coming in who have never seen a wheelbarrow,” says Patterson. “We had a recipient of a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture come in who had never used a wheelbarrow before.”
For Patterson, this is a source of concern and excitement. The disconnect between consumers and the land, she says, is part of the reason why food production remains in the hands of large-scale, conventional farmers.
At the same time, she views the volunteers’ enthusiasm for reconnecting with food as an encouraging sign for the future and adds, “There’s a generation that’s super excited to learn, they just don’t know yet. how.”
Patterson speaks from experience. She started the Red Acre farm 12 years ago, at the ripe age of 14. Her parents, who moved to Cedar City from California in search of a quieter life, are now Sara’s employees on the ranch, which is the family’s sole source of income. decade ago.
The Red Acre Center has a special interest in young farmers, but provides education in organic farming, holistic agriculture and related topics to farmers of all types and generations through events. and annual conference.
“There are organic farmers,” says Patterson, “who see Monsanto as the devil.” And there are traditional farmers who have a “We just need to feed the world” view.
“And I think there is a bridge,” she said.
For Patterson, Stan Jensen is testament to that bridge: “What he’s doing is amazing. He sees that it’s possible, he sees what it’s doing to his land… He knows what he’s bringing to people is a beautiful product and he knows that the What he leaves for his children will be better. ”
The Future of Family Farms in Utah
According to the USDA Agricultural Census, 7,380 farms in Utah grow alfalfa. That’s 40% of the state’s 18,409 farms.
The farms in Utah grow alfalfa for a reason – as a long-season plant that develops deep roots, it has the ability to withstand Utah’s harsh desert climate. It is also a water pig. According to a 2020 study, Alfalfa and other forage crops account for 32% of total water consumption in the western United States and 55% of water consumption in the Colorado River Basin..
While some high-tech companies in Utah are Experimenting with more water-saving animal feed, those technologies are far from the reach of struggling family farms.
Stan Jensen’s project is one that breaks free from the physical and process separation of food and animals.
“Ultimately, I find we are primarily making grass-fed beef that sells directly to the consumer,” says Jensen.
For Jensen, this means adopting new skills – not just holistic farming practices but also marketing and branding.
“I’m fine with numbers and accounting,” says Jensen, “But marketing is more of an art.” However, Jensen is happy that they have added customers since October with their new business, Sunny Side Up Pastures.
He’s cautiously optimistic about this winter’s humidity, but October’s nearly empty shade remains a fresh memory. In the spring, the Jensens will see their position, and in the summer will determine their position.
At that point, Samantha Jensen’s chickens will return to the job of contributing organic matter to the soil.
“Fifty chickens is no big deal, but it was her upbringing. She is learning, and hopefully we can scale this up and see success in the future. “
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/01/05/this-utah-family-farm/ This family farm in Utah turned down Monsanto. Here’s how it happens.