The Salt Lake City Tribune posted a water story (see it here) that straightened my back and got my attention. The story is well researched, we learn there are 10,000 family hay-growing operations in Utah, that the crop market value is $500 million, and one-third of the crop is sent overseas.
Profits in Utah’s alfalfa production are on par with revenues generated by the state’s amusement parks. Water slides, aquariums, and entertainment farms bring in just as much.
Alfalfa is grown across Utah. (Full alfalfa story here) To the south Cedar City and Delta have sizable acreage planted. North of Salt Lake City and east of the Great Salt Lake it is Cache and Weber County where hay cultivation is the most intense, it is the crown jewel of alfalfa growing regions in the state. Even with that Utah supplies just 1% of all the alfalfa grown in the USA.
The Bear, Jordan and Weber Rivers is the source of the water farmers have needed to grow alfalfa. Until the 1980’s irrigating fields of alfalfa was regarded as sustainable. Annual rain and snow patterns began shifting while population continued to expand, and the cultivation of alfalfa continued to increase. With domestic markets tight Utah’s agricultural interests searched abroad and developed foreign markets for their product.
Logan, Utah is Cache County’s biggest city. There are about 50,000 in town, in a county of 156,000. Median income is set at about $30k, most of the population in this region are young, under 30-year old’s, most Mormon’s, many already started having children. Home prices here have not exploded like the southern region of Utah.
To the east is the northernmost section of the Wasatch Mountains, it’s a sportsmen’s paradise— fishing, hunting and off-road vehicles are the preferred recreational activities of the region. Most of the population here was born after 1990, many were just grammar school students when the World Trade Center came down, the Global Financial Crisis hit while they were graduating from high school, and the scorched earth politics that went from slow burn to high heat triggered by the election of the first Black-American president is likely their coming-of-age memory. Bill Clinton was before their time, they have no memory of what life was like before the free trade agreement era, it was in their youth when most of the factories in America were disassembled and sold off to bidders in China.
You travel further south to Weber County, it is smaller in size but larger in population, they earn a little more, the population is a bit older, but for the most part the voting block of these two county’s has only a scant memory of a world that existed before 1990. Ogden landmarks the northernmost portion of the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan corridor— a region known as the Wasatch Front.
The Great Salt Lake, this ancient body of water west of the Wasatch Front is undergoing a climate induced transformation, the lake has been shrinking since the 1980’s, as of now the lake has lost two-thirds its size. This hotter drier climate and diversion of river water for alfalfa cultivation has proven a dire threat to the lake’s survival. The shorelines soils are thick with minerals that once dry go airborne fowling the air up and down the Wasatch Front. The unwanted contamination reads like a rogue’s gallery of the most awful heavy metals and toxic chemicals a human would never want to breathe. More than a million of Utah’s citizens face significant increases in cancer and respiratory diseases because of these pollutants.
In 2022 it is estimated that Utah’s gross domestic product is $183 billion. Of that statewide about $500 million (that’s right not even a billion) are the profits from alfalfa. Still if you live north in a rural agricultural district like Cache County these are make or break profits. Then, there is the cultural impact as most for Mormon’s in this region rural farming and ranching is the foundation of their religious heritage. Add a dollop of cowboy culture and you’ve a significant chunk of the state that wants to protect its past way of life from this more complicated multicultural present.
Last Sunday on the editorial pages of the Salt Lake City Tribune, the state’s leading newspaper has called for the state of Utah to buyout the alfalfa growers and to put the water back into the tributaries that fill the Great Salt Lake.
The transition away from grass crop agriculture will require careful planning. It has been an unfortunate feature of our zeal for free market capitalism to let the market figure things out on its own. With the energy transition in full swing now, and the real-world impact of the climate emergency effecting every region of the American West it is going to be necessary for government agencies to partner with the private sector to create a new and more environmentally balanced economy. We simply do not have time to let one industry wither and die while another tries to rise from the ashes of yesteryear.
One approach to fixing the crisis on the Great Salt Lake would be to put a small excise tax on Utah’s $183 billion gross domestic product, and keep that tax on for some years, paying the farmers to keep their fields free of alfalfa. Some will transition to crops that use less water, some will get out of farming, others might remain on their land and find work nearby. Private enterprise will find many opportunities as much of our manufacturing capacity returns from locations overseas. Utah already plays host to several major data server farms, the need for more in a world continuing to go online is a demand this region could meet.
The key to success is striking the right balance, this is going to require a private-public partnership in innovation. Opportunity is key and can help offset culture shock— and it is this modern climate changing way of life encroaching on this world of yesterday that is going to take some real finessing if this transition is to succeed.
One of the features lacking in our present is the existence of a reliable narrator. If we can make sense of what’s happening, if the alfalfa growers can help keep the citizens of their state safe, if their sacrifice can benefit the many, then that story may be worth telling. Given the sacrifice necessary, the people may find their sacrifice uplifting, dare I say Christian. Opening this new frontier in a non-carbon fueled economy could be as vivid a modern-day tale as the explorers who entered this region by wagon train to settle nearly two centuries ago. If ever there were reasons for the public schools to restore funding for music, arts, drama and literature this may be that moment in our history.
We’ll watch with interest to see if there are any takers to the proposal put forward by the Tribune’s editorial board. So far pulling acreage out of production has been forced by drought and bankruptcy. It needn’t be like that, rather than wait for the economy to tank, wait for the inevitable ill citizens to start filling up Salt Lake City’s hospitals, this time getting out ahead of the forces that have us in a bind, doing the right thing is a way for the state of Utah to build a bridge to a better future.
I know these people, I have traveled through this region, having presented my show to audiences up and down the small towns of this region. There’s a path forward, leaders need to show courage and light the way.