Holding His Ground
updated August 24th, 2008
Development encroaches on one of the last family farms in Orem. How the Cook Family Farm intends to stand their ground in the face of new city mandates and developer pressure.
Verl Cook has been a farmer his entire life. He remembers his beautiful family farm, once remotely located on the outskirts of Orem. Back then besides Geneva Steel the landscape was farmland as-far-as the-eye-could-see. Today Verl's 40-acre farm looks like an anomaly among I-15 billboards, retail outlets and development. Verl says he is constantly getting offers on developers to buy his land, but he will never sell. Verl's farm means much more to him than money and he says his kids feel the same way. Verl and Londa Cook are the parents of eight children, seven of which are helping on his farm full-time along with many Grandchildren and their spouses.
As we walk through Verl's impressive greenhouses, which vary in degree of sophistication and age, he explains how greenhouse technology has progressed. The western-most greenhouse is standard looking, with big fans blowing air over the rows of ornamental bushes and landscaping plants. The easternmost greenhouse is completely automated for temperature and humidity. There are screens that control how much light is allowed which are either open or closed depending on thermostats monitoring the conditions. Verl says, "Its all computer controlled."
In another room Verl and his family have invested over $20,000 in an automatic seed machine. This incredible device can simultaneously plant a seed and deposit soil in a very small sprouting container. Once the spouts have established, another machine can punch the sprouts out and drive the seedlings into a larger pot size container.Verl says he doesn't yet have the robots that can transfer the small plants into larger half gallon containers; that still has to be done manually. The manual work required at Cook's Farm & Greenhouse employs over fifty people at peak season.
We walk over to a large garage full of golf carts and ATVs. We hop on an ATV and we are off to see the vegetable garden. On the way out Verl waves to a smiling girl and says, "Shes the sister of my youngest son's wife." Verl tells me that his farm is a true family operation: one of his sons is in charge of trees, another is in charge of the vegetables, another does annuals another perennials, his son's wives and his daughters all help part-time when they can.
As we drive I look West I see the remains of of Geneva Steel. Verl tells me the only remaining operation is the nitrogen factory, where they bond amonia to nitrogen to make ammonium nitrate, used most commonly for farm fertilizer. Verl says he could never farm in the sandy soil without the fertilizer. He adds that he will not use pesticide when he can help it, but his farm requires fertilizer. The organic movement's naivetè to demonize fertilizer misunderstands that fertilizer was probably the greatest invention of the 20th century, without which our population could never sustain itself.
|Verl Cook recently began at the Salt Lake City Farmers Market
On Verl's beautiful farm, plump purple eggplant are abundant, as well as a huge variety of peppers of various colors and temperature: anaheims, red chilis, bell peppers and jalapenos. Verl has more than an entire acre of corn, but he says the skunks and raccoons strip them of about two-thirds of their harvest every year.
Verl tells me that the city of Orem would prefer they sell their farm out to developers. I'm surprised by this news because his 40 acre farm and nursery are such a beautiful piece of green open space in an area being flooded with asphalt, cement and tract homes.
The Politics of Farming
According to Verl, the city isn't getting enough taxes from his property and they would rather see a of mega store where he's located: just off I-15's first Lindon exit. Verl tells me the city is forcing him to install nearly a half acre of asphalt covering his parking lot North of his greenhouses because they no longer want to allow him to get by as simply a farm business. Instead, Orem City has decided to treat the Cook Farm as any other retail store, requiring him to abide by all the same ordinances as the nearby retail outlets. This we be an added expense of nearly $200 thousand dollars for the Cooks.
The Cooks chose not to get into a legal battle with the city because they should see a some benefit from the parking lot. In the springtime his greenhouse is overflowing with cars and traffic. Verl says his customer base has been a major factor in his farm's longevity. Verl also thanks his customers for their support in preventing the tax-revenue-hungry-city from overrunning him with regulations. As Verl drives me back to my car his point is well proven; everyone waves to him as their friendly neighborhood farmer.
|Orem City is making the Cook's put in a half acre parking lot around their green house.
The Cook's Farm & Greenhouse is an asset to both Orem and Salt Lake City. The "localvore" movement, makes sense and it relies on farmers like Verl in providing locally grown, non-foreign-oil-dependent, food to the masses at the Farmers Market. Despite the offers from developers and the squeeze by the city, if Verl has his way Cook's family farm will remain for years to come.
Why Verl Prefers not to Wholesale to Home Depot or Wal-Mart
Verl says he is glad that he no longer needs to sell his plants in big box stores. Big boxes stores don't attempt any measures for good relations with nusery providers. Both Wal-Mart and Home Depot also tell growers what they are willing to pay for each potted plant their are no negotiations or higher prices for higer quality inventory. In order to maintain their high profits and low prices big boxes also place the inventory burden on the grower: A grower isn't paid for his product until the plant is passed through checkout and paid for by the customer. Any unsold plants are the grower's burden. Buying directly from Verl in Orem allows him to pass savings onto the customer and the Cook's Farm provides a much greater variety than any big box can offer.
This piece is the fifth in Utah Stories ongoing Farmers Market series. Click here to visit our Farmers Market Stories main page.
Jeffrey A Pyper
Anyone that hasn't met Verl is in for a real treat when you do. Not only is he a Utah farm hero, he understands food and his produce especially his sweet corn is what Utah used to be about. He represents Utah before greed, business, developers and politicians took over. Visit Verl at the farmers market and chat with him. One Fine Utah Gentleman