By Ken Root
This fall I had the opportunity to travel to St. George, Utah to speak to the Utah Association of Conservation Districts. There was a High Plains Journal Connection. Bob Barry is president of the UACD. He hails from the four corners region which sits about three hundred miles east of Salt Lake City. Barry is an avid reader of this magazine and last year asked columnist Trent Loos to be their speaker. I don’t know if they were trying to average up or down but I followed Trent and had a wonderful experience in a place that is foreign to an Oklahoma kid who now lives in Iowa.
Bob Barry is a young seventy years old. He farms with his son and twenty-year old grandson, who is the seventh generation on the land. He is matter of fact in his description of dryland farming at seven thousand feet. “We grow hard red winter wheat in good rich, red soil. We also grow pinto beans, safflower and sunflowers.”
Barry comes across as quiet but determined. He had the gumption to serve on a county conservation board for many years and to step up to be its state president. “We are divided by counties and watersheds and mostly they match up, he says as he explains the conservation districts in an area that I found hard to grasp in its scale and minimal amount of private land. “Our biggest concern is the changing government policy on Public Lands and what’s going to happen to ranchers who have leased it for generations.” He explained that the state of Utah is mostly owned by the federal government and his organization wants the public to understand that agriculturalists benefit them in the way they manage the grazing. “We believe we are good for the land and the wildlife and it allows us to own small amounts of private land where we can farm and ranch in cooperation with the government.” That cooperation seems to be the big problem.
Barry is not alone in his belief and dedication to the land. The Utah Association of Conservation Districts is a dynamic organization with an office in the state capitol that carries their views to the legislators and agencies. Their biggest challenge is not the state but federal agencies, especially the Bureau of Land Management. Members gritted their teeth when addressing bureaucratic conflict with the federal agency.
In speaking to the group and socializing with them, my Iowa wife and I didn’t fit in too easily but were received warmly. We had flown to Las Vegas and driven two hours through rough and high desert to get to the beautiful town of St. George. The region calls itself “Dixie” as it is so far south in the state. I was struck by the color and beauty of the mountains but also by the endless rocky and dry landscape. In my speech, I told them Iowa was a little different than Utah. I described the only rock in our area: “It’s ten feet tall and sits next to the highway about twenty miles west. It’s so rare to see one, we’ve painted it and put an American flag on top!” They laughed and seemed to feel sorry for me.
At dinner with the board members and wives, I learned that we were also in Mormon country. The steak house didn’t make much on drinks that night as every glass was tall and clear. The demeanor of the people, however, was identical to those of the Midwest. We talked of children and hopes for the future. Men discussed the crops they grew and their distance to get grain and livestock to market. The presidential election was a week later so I didn’t get to see what, I assume, was jubilation at the prospect of new leadership at the BLM. I would say their spirits ran high but there were still no spirits in their glasses. A friend once told me a Mormon was like a Baptist but the Mormons practice what they preach.
Bob Barry became a friend very quickly. We sat at a quiet table on the last morning of the meeting and he told me of his youth and hopes for the millennial grandson who wants to farm. His childhood was pure nostalgia: Bob attended a one room school through the sixth grade and was one of two students in his class. “One teacher, a pot-bellied stove and two outhouses,” was his description. He rode a bicycle in good weather and a horse when it was bad. He rode a bus to Monticello, Utah for the next six years and graduated with a class of thirty-five.
When he began to talk of his family, from his son farming so he could lead the conservation association and especially the grandson, his eyes got misty and his voice choked up. He sees the world changing and population shifting. “Some retired folks are moving in but we can’t keep exporting all of our kids. Some of them have to be given the opportunity to stay!”
I don’t know if my stories of the dust bowl and depression meant anything to this group of dry country farmers and ranchers nor my explanation of how man can be an invasive species or he can bring our world back to the Garden of Eden. I do know that they moved me. I felt good about the people of the land in a countryside that is far less forgiving than the fertile and well-watered Midwest. I met great people who face all the problems we do, and more, as government is their neighbor on three sides.
I was once told that if you look for good people, you will find them. Proven in Utah by me.