By 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.
The 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.
Mountain 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.
Mormon 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.
Change 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.
Even 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.
Many 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.
Indebtedness 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 center.
Hard 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.
The 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.
Another 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.
More 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.
Although 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.
Charles S. Peterson