Loren Begay cares for a sheep that belongs to Grand Conservation District vice chair Sam Cunningham. The conservation district considers locally based agricultural operations to be a top priority, and its policy recommendations and programs are designed to help them succeed. [Photo courtesy of Sam Cunningham]

In Grand County’s earlier days, the local economy was based on farming and ranching.

But today, high land prices and a reliance on a recreation- and tourism-based economy that make agriculture less important are major impediments to local food production, according to Grand Conservation District chair Kara Dohrenwend.

The conservation district named agricultural land protection and designation as a top priority in its last Resource Needs Assessment, and that is unlikely to change as the GCD updates that document in 2015. The GCD wants to see local agriculture succeed, and it has policy recommendations and programs to help producers thrive in Grand County.

Dohrenwend believes local agriculture should be important to everyone because, as she put it, “the more locally produced food, the more secure a community.”

She remembers that a few years back, City Market shelves were nearly bare in less than three days during the winter, when Vail Pass was closed due to snow. Local agriculture can allow us to be less reliant on food brought in from far away, which may not always arrive when needed, she said.

GCD board supervisor Dee Taylor pointed to the economic, environmental and health benefits of locally based agricultural operations.

“In addition to wages, money spent in the local economy, and tax revenue…local agriculture provides green open space and wildlife habitat in addition to the fresh, wholesome, locally grown food for people,” he said.

Taylor also emphasized the cultural aspect of agriculture in Moab.

“Moab has a long history of being a farming and ranching community long before mining, drilling, or tourism,” he said. “Maintaining some of that heritage adds diversity and character, which is important in preserving our diverse local culture and economy.”

The GCD and the nearly 3,000 conservation districts across the nation are political subdivisions established under state law to carry out natural resource management programs at the local level, according to the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) website.

Because they are locally run, districts’ names and operations vary across the nation. However, all districts have some common goals, and one is to “implement farm, ranch and forestland conservation practices to protect soil productivity, water quality and quantity, air quality and wildlife habitat,” according to the NACD website. The programs they administer are “incentive-driven,” and focus primarily on working with private landowners to improve efficiency of agricultural operations.

Conservation district board members are elected by voters in their districts. All GCD board members are directly engaged in some type of agricultural production.

Dohrenwend propagates native plants, including ones that benefit pollinators, and Taylor is a rancher. Vice chair Sam Cunningham raises sheep; board treasurer Gary Wilson is a hay farmer, and supervisor Rhonda Gotway grows vegetables.

Conservation districts came into being as a result of “the ‘Dust Bowl’ days in the early 1930s, when soil erosion created an “unprecedented ecological disaster,” according to the Utah Association of Conservation Districts (UACD) website. The severe dust storms were brought about by a combination of lasting drought and insufficient soil management. The UACD website also states, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended that all states pass legislation allowing the creation of conservation districts. Utah passed the state’s Soil Conservation District Law in March 1937.”

Every few years, the Grand Conservation District puts out a Resource Needs Assessment to “evaluate the progress made…and set new goals to address the highest priority conservation needs in Grand County” according to the most recent assessment, published in 2012. The document also states that it is intended to be a reference for local, state and regional entities in their own resource management and conservation planning, as well as for the district itself.

In the 2012 assessment, the GCD identified agricultural land preservation, water conservation and groundwater protection, soil erosion and noxious weeds as priority concerns. It also identified small-scale agriculture as a main focus for growth in Grand County, as “a way to maintain an active agricultural industry, and preserve and maintain agriculturally productive lands.”

“Educating local producers on how to conduct their agricultural business more sustainably with less impact on the environment” was the GCD’s greatest accomplishment, and it’s an ongoing effort, Taylor said.

“My ideal vision for agriculture in Grand County would be for farmers and ranchers to be able to find ways to make a living in agriculture so they can resist the temptation to sell their farms and ranches for large sums of money, to be converted into the final crop: growing houses,” he said.

Taylor encourages those who want to support local agriculture to purchase locally grown items when available.

“And…be more tolerant of agricultural practices and uses,” he said. “Local planning and zoning, and land use planning—including use of public lands—need to recognize the needs and importance of agriculture as well as the impacts their decisions may have on agricultural producers.”

Dohrenwend said that those who would like to support local agriculture may want to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), in which consumers purchase a share and receive farm goods throughout the growing season. She also recommended shopping at the Moab Farmers Market, and supporting the Youth Garden Project. Dohrenwend encouraged those interested to, “Grow your own garden. And, if you have a larger property, consider a small market farm.”

If you would like more information about the Grand Conservation District and the programs it administers, contact Dohrenwend at kara@reveg.org. Conservation District Board meetings are held the second Monday of every month in the meeting room of the Youth Garden Project, which is located at 530 S. 400 East.

Preservation of agricultural land is a top priority for GCD members

In addition to wages, money spent in the local economy, and tax revenue…local agriculture provides green open space and wildlife habitat in addition to the fresh, wholesome, locally grown food for people.