many standards Utah is not an agricultural state. Nature
has been stingy in that regard. Good crop land is scarce.
Water is not plentiful, nor can it even be found in many
places. For much of its history the state has been predominantly
urban in its population as well as industrial and commercial
in its economy. Yet agriculture continues to have a cultural
impact out of proportion to any economic, acreage, or
population standard. The mindset of Utah's residents remains
in large measure rural with an emphasis on family life.
Local influences play an important part in government
and social life. Like their forebears, modern-day Utahns
still see security in agriculture and their lives take
form and context from a patchwork of land-related influences.
very fact of Utah's limited natural resources attracted
Utah's first Anglo-American settlers, the Mormon pioneers.
They were bent on restructuring society, and in many of
their aims they deviated significantly from national goals.
In some respects it was their approach to the land that
divided them most sharply from the rest of the country.
Fortified by a sense of gathering and a yearning for order,
Mormon pioneers preferred an agricultural approach to
the land in contrast to developing mining or industry.
Recognizing that abundant crop land did not exist in Utah,
they established institutions and austere measures by
which expensive and limited resources were turned from
a liability in to a positive force.
streams along the Wasatch mountains and high country plateaus
were diverted for irrigation, giving Utah geography a
north-south axis that contrasted to the east-west thrust
of the nation. The farming village became a characteristic
of the cultural landscape. By the year 1900 more than
400 farm towns had been established. Most towns were laid
out in grids with small farms adjacent. Speculation in
land was denounced by community and church leaders. Property
ownership often was subordinated to community objectives.
Land values remained low. Debt was rare. Diversified self-sustaining
agriculture was dominant. Initially at least, a biblical
concept of stewardship deterred overexpansion and exploitation
of the land. Irrigation was communal in social intent,
limited in capacity, and generally environmentally benign.
In theory, timber's potential to serve the community was
more esteemed than its promise for profit. This land-based
communalism worked well. The Mormon pioneer experience
was expressed in physical forms that lasted for generations;
and for many Utahns traditions of land use that looked
beyond economics became second nature.
leaders were spokesmen for agriculture and in the process
gave agrarian values many of the attributes of religious
teaching. Central was the idea that in God's providence
the "desert will blossom as the rose." Corollaries abounded:
God tempered the elements; stream flows increased; natural
drawbacks such as drought, insects, and cold were softened
by the "Spirit's genial influence." As one leader said,
it was not the "outsiders who . . . built up the country"
but the Saints. If the land were "regulated as it would
be under the government of God" problems would cease to
exist. Land would form the nucleus of "prosperity, wealth,
and comparative independence." For the "ransomed of the
Lord" who gathered to the mountain Zion it was an escape
to a pastoral promised land. Historian Earl Pomeroy has
observed that in building a landed Zion, Utah's founders
brought rural ways into their cities. Even in Salt Lake
City rural characteristics were strong. Early travelers
found it to be more "a gigantic village" than a city.
Until at least the year 1900 many of its people lived
near the land, cultivated gardens, raised chickens, milked
cows, and supported the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing
Society. At the city's center stood the Tithing Office
haystacks. By 1873 a farmers' market provided an outlet
where for the next seventy-five years small growers dealt
directly with consumers and retailers. Hay markets flourished.
In many ways, Salt Lake City epitomized a continuing split
in Utah's personality. It was very much part of America's
urban surge, yet it remained a city the heart of which
was committed to rural values and farm-based stability.
did occur, however, including a rise of speculative promotion
in land. This was especially apparent in the 1890s when
total farmland increased more than threefold, from 1.3
million to 4.1 million acres. After a lull early in the
new century, land use boomed again between 1909 and 1918
when settlers entered an average of 575,000 new acres
each year. The number of farms increased from 10,517 in
1890 to an all-time high of 30,695 in 1935. This was due
in part to mounting faith in the technology of dry farming.
Discounted to begin with, dry farming methods attracted
great attention during the 1890s; by 1905 the Utah Agricultural
College had established six experimental farms and John
A. Widstoe had worked out dry farming techniques. Thousands
hailed it as a new El Dorado. Some organized great land
companies. However, more lived hardscabble lives before
finally retreating from the land or returning to town
to commute as family demands required. Few dry farmers
actually lived on the land after 1945.
more in the spirit of the new commercialism were land
development projects. Scattered throughout the state's
submarginal regions were high-risk enterprises. The New
Castle Reclamation Company pinned high hopes on the vast
Escalante Desert. Near Moab, the Valley City Company of
Indianapolis laid grand plans but watched helplessly as
its dam and its hopes melted with summer cloudbursts.
Even the state land office was caught in the frenzy, promoting
the Hatchtown Dam and the State Canal along which new
settlements, including the Jewish colony of Clarion, were
located. In the west deserts railroad-sponsored companies
opened Carey Land Act tracts near Delta and Milford.
projects failed; but where public subsidy, private sacrifice,
and promising natural conditions existed, some finally
succeeded. Northern Utah's Bear River Valley Project had
poor success until it was taken over after 1902 by the
Utah Idaho Sugar Company. The Strawberry Project - a federal
reclamation program launched in 1905 - opened 16,000 new
acres in Utah Valley. The long-range impact of these projects
was apparent in the high agricultural production of Box
Elder and Utah counties throughout the twentieth century.
was another evidence that Utah farmers were seeking new
benefits from the land. Debt had been nearly unknown in
the earlier period; but in 1890 twenty percent of farms
were mortgaged, and by 1920 nearly fifty percent of Utah's
farmers labored under heavy debts. The commercial shift
was also apparent in an aggressive quest for cash crops.
Sugar beets made the biggest difference. Beginning with
one processing plant at Lehi in 1891, twenty were built
throughout the state by 1918. In 1920, Utah farmers produced
$28,000,000 worth of sugar, giving them third place nationally
and making sugar production second only to mining within
Utah. Dairying, truck crops, orchards, and canneries also
flourished. With more than half the state's canneries,
a modest meat packing industry, and enough milling to
make it one of the ten leading centers nationally, Ogden
was easily the state's most important agricultural manufacturing
times followed in the 1920s and 1930s. Wartime demand
gave way to surpluses. Prices fell. Debt was ruinous.
Trade-offs demanded by modernization - for example, tractors
and drainage systems instead of new land, roads, and mills
- were costly. Annual precipitation decreased generally
after 1923. Blights struck promising crops. Farmers tightened
their belts, turned to poultry or alfalfa seed production,
or left the farm. The young jobbed around, went to school,
and returned to try where others had failed. During this
period the movement of people from the farm is prominent.
Farm population reached a maximum of 132,000 in 1910 and
then fell each decade until by 1940 only 94,000 remained.
Urban population during the period increased by almost
100,000 and nonfarm rural population grew by a third to
150,000. Few who left the land went into businesses that
required heavy capitalization. On the other hand, however,
many had reserves to draw on, and the retreat from the
land was more an orderly withdrawal than a flight. Those
who remained behind often provided those who were leaving
a start toward social mobility. As the land frontier closed,
the movement into land-oriented scholarship and science
was great. Few states made comparable contributions. For
decades people with Utah baccalaureate degrees were near
the top of "state productivity indexes" in science doctoral
degrees. The contributions Utah-trained people made in
federal land management agencies were also great.
State Agricultural College (now Utah State University)
was very important to Utah. From its founding in 1887,
the school had been true to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's
client-oriented, science-based, production-conscious mission.
Indeed, it pushed cost-efficient scientific farming to
the extent that its very success became one of the forces
by which farm population dwindled, thus contributing to
a reduction in its traditional farm clientele.
important shift took place on Utah's public lands, which
amounted to some 33,530,000 acres (or 64 percent of the
state). In 1900 stockgrowers had the best claim to and
strongest interest in Utah's federal lands. But with multiple
use concepts other interests emerged. Inhabitants of cities
concerned with watershed management and flood control
were important early. Later, as national parks were created
and other agencies shifted their thinking, tourists and
recreationists became increasingly important. One result
of this has been a sharp drop in the land access enjoyed
by stockmen. Utah's support of the Sagebrush Rebellion
in the late 1970s and the conservative policy of the Department
of Interior was closely related to concern over the use
of public lands.
traditional agrarian interests also continued to appeal
to many urban Utahns. This was apparent in the flourishing
of the Mormon Welfare Program after 1936. The so-called
"Stake Welfare Farm" - an agricultural project operated
for and by one or more Mormon stakes - dotted some traditional
farm districts near the population centers. In more rural
areas the projects often managed livestock operations
that utilized church-owned farms and range land as well
as public grazing permits. By the mid-1980s the volunteer
labor aspect of this process had begun to diminish, but
for decades the Mormon church had pushed a program in
which many non-farmers practiced rural values and skills
and in an emotional sense, if not indeed legally, shared
in farm ownership.
fewer than 13,000 families still farmed in the 1980s,
land values and rural ways continued to reflect strong
sentiments and preferences. The owner-occupied home with
its lawn and garden had become what political scientist
Daniel Elazer termed an "urban surrogate for the family
farm." The persistence of rural interests was also evident
in the vitality of state and county fairs at which livestock
and rural and home exhibits were avidly patronized. Interest
in horses was high as attested by rodeos, racing, and
horse shows. In the mid-1970s more than 37,000 people
owned horses. Dollar investment was estimated at $329
million, but few owners viewed their horses as a money-making
enterprise. In short, as the twentieth century entered
its last decades, the ideals of space, closeness to the
soil, country recreation, personal security, simplicity
of life and its attendant virtues played a role far beyond
the direct dollar yield of the limited number of acres
under cultivation. In 1990 as in 1847 agriculture was
important to Utahns.