Kevin Maher: A Small Farmer in a Hard Place

As our caravan of freshly christened backcountry travelers sped down the highway, I couldn’t help but to notice how barren and void this landscape was to me. Rocky bluffs of sandstone strewn across the dusty landscape baking in the desert heat. Bare rock and stone as far as the eye could see without the slightest hint of vegetation. This is a hard place, I thought to myself, the most unlikely place to find a vegetable farm. I was crossed by a spell of disbelief and excitement that we were going to meet the organic farmer we had been reading about, here in the middle of nowhere Utah.  

His name was Randy Ramsley. He was short compared to the average sized man. His long, dirty blonde hair was pushed back behind a baseball cap, while his suspenders held up a new pair of blue jeans. His skin was red wrinkled and sun burnt from half a lifetime spent doubled under the heavy heat of the southwestern sun. His light blue eyes were easy and welcoming, though there was a fire behind them that caught my full awareness and interest. We piled into the small farm house and were immediately served goat cheese aged five months to the day. It was thick and creamy, and tasted like goat. This is how I would remember this man. Freshly baked loaves of bread were cooling on racks to our left as we walked out the back door towards the farm.

We stood before three to six acres of untilled sun scorched earth with a newly blossoming orchard in the back. Including the farm house we entered there were five structures into total: a green house, a creamery, a goat barn, and a tamarisk topped shanty for shade. Beyond that through the rising heat waves the land dropped down into a dry wash and then suddenly rose four hundred to five hundred feet vertical forming a dry butte. Why anyone would want to farm this land I could not understand, though it is here, and it is the only thing Randy has.

Located on the Aquarius Plateau in south-central Utah, Randy’s farm falls under a rain shadow making the region particularly arid. The normal annual rainfall in the area is three to sixteen inches; however the region has been experiencing drought lately and has only received three to five inches this year. Randy is therefore dependent on upstream water taken from the Green River. He is entitled to 12.5 cubic feet of water per second and diverts it to his farm using a small diversion damn and pump system. A small man-made reservoir adjacent to the green house had black and white tubes poking out like straws, which then snaked around the fields to deliver water, a method known as drip irrigation. Drip irrigation, also known as localized or trickle irrigation, is a method which saves water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of the plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone. With the deserts heat intensity during growing seasons, drip irrigation helps avoid rapid vaporization. With this method, the once barren landscape is now a green oasis.

Randy led us through his fields towards the orchard and goat barn pointing out small grasses and wildflowers he had planted the previous year. We passed through a wired fence door and into the barn and were met by a dozen nervous yet playful kids. They were born several weeks earlier and had probably never seen so many people at once before. The rest of the herd was soon let loose and we were then swimming in goats of all ages and sizes. “These goats,” I heard Randy say through a clamor of yelps and collared bell jangles, “are essential to me.” “They give me meat, milk, and manure. The manure fertilizes the soil and the vegetables grown in that soil give me a profit. Without them I would have nothing.” His love and passion for his goats was obvious, for he suppressed no emotions. He spoke with a pure, honest, and quite rare conviction for his beliefs. Our group was so deeply moved that we needed time to reflect on his words and wisdom before moving on.

In my reflection, this is what I found to be most powerful and inspiring about his man. Despite his tribulations from water rights stipulations and upstream users over-pumping their claim to health inspectors, drought, unproductive crop yield, and debt: he was happy. Perhaps one of the happiest and most energetic humans I’ve met. His happiness was not superficial, or simple contentment, but a deep rooted happiness that radiated from his being. It was happiness unlike most people I’ve met because it was genuine and wrought with validity. It was the response of someone who has sought their passion and dream and pursued it with an undying love and commitment. His happiness came from doing what made him genuinely happy. He could have done any number of occupations that would have promised material wealth and possessions along with any number of titles, but at the expense of his passion, or at the expense of what he knew in his heart would bring him happiness. Instead he quit his job and choose the life of a farmer and goat keeper because that’s what he truly wanted.

He left us with a token of advice that has influenced this entire trip, along with my personal priorities and desires. “Not everyone needs to be a farmer,” he said. “We need doctors, and writers, and business men and women to; just as long as you can demonstrate with your life that you can be happy with what you do.” For a group of college students with a lifetime in front of them, where some of their most elevated decisions are to be made now, I’d say that is some of the best advice we could have received.

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