Moonflower Community Cooperative produce manager Rori Tehan stocked the market's fresh vegetable section on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Tehan said that customers are excited about buying locally grown produce, mirroring Envision Utah's findings that there is growing statewide interest in Utah-grown fruits and vegetables. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

When the nonprofit group Envision Utah reached out to state residents eight years ago and asked them if they felt that agriculture is critically important to Utah’s future, just one in two said yes.

So Envision Utah Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening said he was stunned when his organization asked the same question again this year, and 98 percent of nearly 53,000 respondents answered in the affirmative.

“The results were astounding,” Bruening said. “Almost everybody said, ‘We want to produce more of our food and become more self-sufficient.’”

The question was part of the group’s broader online “Your Utah, Your Future” survey, which asked residents how they’d like to see the state grow over the next 35 years. Respondents had the chance to share their thoughts about the ways that Utah should plan ahead in 11 key areas – including education, economic growth, transportation and public lands – and Envision Utah Public Relations Manager Jason Brown said he’s encouraged by the results.

“One of the most impressive things we saw is that there seems to be a level of optimism and a level of willingness to make things better,” Brown said.

Moonflower Community Market produce manager Rori Tehan said that many Moab-area residents will make an extra effort to seek out fresher, higher quality produce from regional vendors like Castle Valley Farms, Hole Foods Farm of La Sal and Early Morning Orchard of Palisade, Colorado.

“People seem really excited about local stuff,” she said. “We get a lot of requests for fruit. One of our most popular (vendors) is Early Morning Orchard.”

This time of year, Palisade-grown peaches from the orchard are in especially high demand, according to Tehan.

“We’re going through six boxes of peaches a day,” she said.

In the fall, consumers’ interests shift to locally grown apples from the same growers.

On occasion, Moonflower will hear from local customers who say things like, “Why do you have this (from California), when you could get this?” Tehan said.

“The local stuff that comes in is way more attractive and better than the stuff we’re getting from California,” she said. “With the organic stuff we get sometimes off the truck, we just go, ‘No. Send it back.’”

Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow said that the skyrocketing interest in protecting farmland and orchards around the state to serve local demands marks a considerable shift away from past development trends.

“That’s not what we’ve been doing historically,” Grow said. “Much of our best land for growing fruits and vegetables is being developed for homes and businesses.”

As new residential and commercial development eats up more and more farmland in Utah, just 2 percent of the vegetables and 3 percent of the fruit that residents buy today is grown somewhere in the state, according to Envision Utah’s statistics.

“The amount of acreage in terms of orchards in the state has been cut in half in the last 20 years,” Bruening said. “So places like Fruit Heights no longer have fruit.”

In the future, he said, state and community leaders must come up with long-range plans to make farming operations more profitable, and potentially reduce the pressures that development places on prime agricultural land.

While those pressures have swallowed up farms and orchards from Moab and Spanish Valley to areas along the Wasatch Front, interest in locally grown produce is turning inward, as more and more residents expand vegetable plots or plant fruit trees in their own yards.

Bruening sees a need for big-picture planning to address residents’ water usage, but he said that a combination of market forces and trends are already starting to have some effect in terms of water conservation.

As developers run out of raw land to build on, they’re building new housing units in established neighborhoods with reduced footprints. As a result, Bruening said that newly developed yard sizes in Salt Lake County are actually smaller than they were in the early 1900s – down to an average of about 5,000 square feet, which translates to less space for lawns and landscaping.

He said he suspects that a generational change in people’s preferences could also be under way, as residents are generally less willing – or less interested – in taking care of large front lawns that guzzle water.

“Drought-shaming” has caught on in bone-dry California, where residents have publicly accused entertainer Barbra Streisand and others of wasting water, and in Utah, Bruening said that more subtle signs of interest in water conservation are emerging.

“I think you are seeing a little bit of a different water ethic,” he said. “When you see somebody watering in mid-afternoon, you do start to see some of those dirty looks (from neighbors).”

Brown noted that water usage around the state is already down by about 17 percent from 2000-era levels. On top of that number, he said the survey found that Utahns are willing to cut back by an average of an additional 23 percent from today’s levels.

“We don’t really need to convince anyone that we live in a desert, and that we cannot use water like we’re in a place that receives 100 inches of rain a year,” Brown said.

Beyond water and agriculture, residents weighed in on what they want the state’s energy mix to look like by the year 2050, with 43 percent choosing a combination that includes natural gas and more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

That mix, according to Envision Utah, would keep household energy costs down, while allowing the state to transition away from coal-fired power.

According to Brown, just 23 percent said they want to increase the percentage of renewables to more than half of the state’s energy mix, based on the assumption that energy costs would increase by 58 percent under that scenario. However, Brown said that option did not factor in the possibility that renewable energy sources and battery storage technologies could become more competitive with conventional sources like natural gas by 2050.

“When we’re modeling our projections, it’s hard to estimate how those costs will change,” he said.

An energy mix that includes nuclear power was off the table for a majority of respondents, who cited concerns about the amounts of water that nuclear power plants use, as well as the potential for accidents.

“Utahns are still quite leery about bringing nuclear to the state,” Brown said.

They’re far less leery about expanding recreational opportunities on the state’s public lands, according to Envision Utah.

Half of all respondents said they would back plans for new national or state parks in Utah, while another 30 percent supported the idea, as long as the designations would not lead to significant land-use restrictions.

More than three out of four respondents also chose a scenario that would double the number of recreational facilities in the state. But half of those people said they don’t want the state to promote tourist attractions in advertising markets beyond Utah’s borders

“I think that what Utahns are telling us is, ‘We don’t like waiting in line, and we like waiting in line even less when there’s a tourist in front of us,’” Bruening said.

The results suggest that residents are willing to pay higher taxes, he said, if more funding is devoted to the development and maintenance of local and regional trail systems that serve residents’ needs.

“People like to be able to step out of their front doors and get on the trails,” he said.

Statewide study by Envision Utah reflects attitudes in Moab area

One of the most impressive things we saw is that there seems to be a level of optimism and a level of willingness to make things better.