Early pioneers brought many different fruits into Utah. Mormon leaders were anxious to show that a wide variety of crops could be grown successfully in the area, and they actively encouraged immigrants to bring seeds and fruit tree stock. Apples, peaches, cherries, pears, apricots, and grapes were among the most popular crops planted during this period. The best locations for growing fruit were determined through a long process of trial and error in the new settlements founded throughout the territory. By the late nineteenth century the counties of the Wasatch Front had been recognized as the areas most suited to large-scale fruit production.
One early attempt to grow fruit for commercial purposes was in Washington County. Success in grape growing, soon after settlement in the 1860s, led to the production of wine. The industry was gradually abandoned due to the poor quality of the product, however.
A growing commercial fruit industry in Utah did not begin until early in the twentieth century. Before this time, Utah’s orchards were largely small private operations, largely uncultivated, and characterized by a large number of fruit varieties of varying quality. Problems with disease and insects, the growing surplus of fruit, and competition from other states combined to stimulate development of the industry.
Local governments first tried coping with the problem of disease at the local level. Beginning in 1894, probate judges issued proclamations regarding the proper time for spraying and disinfecting orchards, and county-appointed fruit inspectors reported on the observance of these proclamations. These impediments to the growth of a commercial fruit industry in Utah were tackled by a new state agency, the Board of Horticulture, beginning in 1896. The board saw its role mainly as one of education and to a lesser extent of regulation. Its publications promoted the latest in fruit-growing technology, explaining to farmers how best to plant, cultivate, and prune their orchards to achieve maximum production. The state board also recommended the most suitable varieties of fruits for commercial production, and it advocated standards for the grading of fruit going to market. The board promulgated rules for spraying and orchard disinfection and began the inspection of fruit and the banning of diseased fruit from the market. Nursery stock was inspected beginning in 1897, and a law regulating the marking and grading of fruit was enacted in 1929.
Also instrumental in these early efforts at improving fruit production was the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station started in 1890 at Utah State University. Different varieties of fruit were tested in experimental orchards, the first of which was planted on what is now the quad on the Logan campus. Other farms followed in different parts of the state. Publications that reported the results of fruit growing trials and gave advice on fruit growing techniques were widely distributed. Studies of specific aspects of the industry were also frequently published.
These efforts led to a boom in the number of commercial orchards. A period of rapid expansion began in 1903 and continued until 1914 when overproduction caused a general depression in the industry both in Utah and throughout the West. In the years immediately following, thousands of trees were destroyed and new planting dropped dramatically. By 1947 the number of fruit trees in production was only half the number reported in 1914. The period between 1914 and 1945 saw the industry stabilize to some extent, but a more rapid erosion in the size of the industry began as urban areas expanded in the years after World War II at the expense of the older, more established orchards.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the fruit industry underwent a revival as new growers began buying and developing cheaper land away from immediate urban expansion, particularly in southern Utah County. Growth has occurred most dramatically in the numbers of tart cherry and apple trees planted. Today, these are the two largest fruit crops produced in the state. Tart cherries supply a larger percentage of the national market than any other kind of fruit; they are grown primarily for processing and canning. Production of sweet cherries, apricots, pears, and peaches continues to decline, as these crops have proven to be less reliable income producers. As the industry has become more specialized, it has also become more highly concentrated. In Utah County alone, the number of growers has declined by more than forty percent since 1970.
Current trends do not accurately reflect the types of fruit historically grown in the state. Peaches, apples, and sweet cherries have always been important fruit crops in Utah. Peaches were initially the most popular crop, but by 1875 they had been surpassed by apples, as measured by number of trees planted. The 1910 agricultural census again showed peaches in the lead; and, until the 1960s when cherries overtook them both, peaches and apples alternated as the dominant crop. In recent years, sweet cherries have also declined and tart cherries account for the growth in production of this fruit.
Utah County continues to lead the state with over fifty percent of the fruit trees in production, and that county produces the majority of all major fruits except apricots. Box Elder County is the second largest producer, followed by Weber and Davis counties. Cache, Washington, Grand, and Emery are the most important counties located outside of the Wasatch Front area that also have some commercial fruit production. Sanpete and Salt Lake counties are no longer major fruit producers. Fruits are important in several localities throughout the state but only a small percentage of these are processed for the larger market.
Marketing of fruit has always been a problem in Utah. Prior to the 1880s, fruit was grown primarily for home use; however, farmers began bringing their surplus into the cities and selling it directly on the streets. Individual farmers often marketed their fruit directly to grocers after 1900, but produce companies increasingly assume this function. Direct marketing to grocers and consumers continues to be important in several locations. In the early years of the twentieth century large growers also attempted to market their fruit out of state themselves. Attempts to establish cooperative marketing organizations met with little long-term success. The Utah fruit industry has tended to lag behind those of other major fruit producing states in the West, both in terms of the willingness of growers to upgrade their products and in terms of advertising or other means of market development.