What this Utah town can teach us about the future of the West
From Jackson Hole to Park City, the wealthy are replacing third- and fourth-generation farmers. We go inside Heber City to view the changing landscape
HEBER CITY — Addison Hicken dreams of looking out and only seeing fields. Fields that stretch out to the horizon. Fields that require long days worked and large families to work them.
He used to have that, just a little over a decade ago. Now, he has a small herd of cattle and an 8-foot wall that separates the property from the football fields and housing developments that surround it.
Tending to cattle is no longer Hicken’s full-time job, although there’s nothing he’d rather spend his days doing. Instead, he works in an office as an accountant in West Valley City.
“There’s no opportunity to grow the operation in Heber,” Hicken said. In order to turn a profit they’d need more land, and cheap land for cattle grazing, or hay and alfalfa fields, are in short supply these days.
Things are not like they used to be in his hometown.
Heber City had about 130 dairies and thousands of acres of farmland until around the 1980s, when developers first started showing up. Situated in a mountain-ringed valley just 20 minutes away from Park City, an internationally renowned (and expensive) ski town, Heber City is experiencing a population boom. Now there are just a few dairies.
Land once used for agriculture has been turned into housing developments. “For Sale” signs dot the fields around town.
“A lot of people say the billionaires from Park City are pushing the millionaires into Heber,” Addison said. There used to be farm trucks; now Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes speed along the roads.
And while all of Utah is experiencing rapid growth — in 2018 it was the third-fastest growing state in the nation, Heber City has grown especially quickly. It is one of the fastest-growing small towns in the United States, and ranked No. 1 for growth for “micropolitan areas,” towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 in 2018.
“They say it’s getting turned into affordable housing, but those homes are going for $400,000. How is that affordable?”
That growth isn’t expected to slow anytime soon. According to the latest draft of the city’s general plan, Heber could double its population by 2050, bringing the number of residents up to 30,000.
Even a global pandemic has not slowed the development in Heber City. “You’re still seeing construction going forward. There hasn’t been a big slowdown,” Tracy Taylor, a real estate broker with Keller Williams Park City Real Estate in Wasatch and Summit counties and member of the Wasatch County Open Lands Board, said. In the last month, sales have actually been up compared to the previous year, Taylor said. “The Wasatch Front is still going crazy. And it’s not just a Wasatch thing. It’s a Utah thing.”
Not only is the population booming, but Heber City’s proximity to Park City, a major tourist destination, is bringing in wealth, and home and land prices are skyrocketing. The average price of a home is almost $500,000. The county estimated that in order to buy a home in Heber City now, a family must make $94,000 a year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 the average yearly income of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers was $71,160.
“They say it’s getting turned into affordable housing, but those homes are going for $400,000. How is that affordable?” Hicken asks.
The ripple effect
On Christmas Day 2006, Claude Hicken called Addison Hicken. We knew it was coming for a while, he told his son. They sold the land behind their home, where their family grazed cattle and planted crops for decades. It was going to be developed and turned into a new high school. Addison Hicken started crying. He was serving a Latter-day Saint mission in Mexico at the time, and his companion asked if he was crying because he missed his family. “No,” Addison Hicken said, “they’re selling the farm.”
When asked about that day, at first Claude Hicken is silent. “Now you’ve got me crying.”
The land the Hickens used to lease from their neighbors for decades was sold off piece by piece. Without access to as much land, they could not grow their own feed for their cows, and the cost of buying it was too much.
Many of the farmers in Heber City were aging, and selling their land meant they could retire. Most encouraged their kids to go into another business — small farm operations have been struggling for years now. The next generation is not interested in farming, or they can’t afford to pay the inheritance tax and decide to sell.
But as each acre of farmland was sold and developed, it became even more difficult for those left to eke out a living.
Or, as Claude Hicken puts it, “Each house is a nail in the coffin of the farmer.”
Farms are being sold off across the country. About 2,000 acres of farmland are lost each day according to the Farmland Information Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for farmland preservation. Between 2001 and 2016 about 11 million acres of agricultural land was converted to development. In Utah, 122,900 acres of farmland were lost to development during the same period of time.
Rising land prices in places like Heber City result in more farm land sold off. It’s not just happening in Heber City, or even just in Utah.
Land prices are rising across the country, especially in scenic parts of the West. Dairy farmers are also disappearing in Star Valley, Wyoming, a collection of small towns about 50 miles south of Jackson Hole, another destination famous for its skiing and proximity to Grand Teton National Park.
Linda Holsan’s family had been ranching in Star Valley since the late 1800s, but “it’s really hard to get that land to pay off for you.” The line stopped at her generation, as her kids moved away because “they can’t make a living here.”
Holsan, who is 69, remembered one ranch where elk used to winter, and deer were prolific. Now, there’s about 2,000 homes on it. “Once a house is built, the land is changed forever,” Holsan said.
Preservation and perseverance
On a warm but cloudy Saturday morning in early March, Addison Hicken and his 5-year-old son Evan are at their home in Heber City. Addison Hicken is 34, the same age as his wife Jenn, whom he met in the fourth grade at a local Heber City elementary school. There’s a huge pine tree in the front yard, and a faint smell of manure. Addison Hicken walks out from around the back with Evan. They’re wearing matching jackets and rain boots covered in mud.
“We were just checking on the new calf that was born last night,” Addison Hicken explains.
They walk into the yellow, two-story house that Addison’s grandfather raised his children in, that Addison’s father, Claude Hicken, raised him in, and where he is now raising his own kids. There is a framed black-and-white picture of the first Hickens to inhabit the house. Although they’ve added on since the photograph was taken in the early 1900s, the house still looks remarkably the same.
They head back outside to see what’s left of the farm. The property is full of memories of memories. Addison Hicken points to the spot where his grandmother used to hang laundry she did for the local hospital. The beef cows they have still bear the tag, 7HL, that Addison’s great-great grandfather (also named Addison) branded his own cattle with in the 1870s.
At just 5 years old, Evan knows his way around cows, and expertly maneuvers around the enormous, wide-eyed creatures. He and his sister, who is 2, wrestle over a hose used to fill the water trough. “It’s important to raise kids in the dirt,” Addison Hicken says. That’s the main reason they’ve kept a couple dozen beef cattle around.
Addison Hicken drives his wife and three kids around Heber Valley in his white Chevy truck; past the Arby’s and Burger King that sits on the furthest edge of the land the Hickens used to farm.
“I used to hunt elk and raccoons in the hay fields there,” Addison Hicken says, gesturing to a hillside now filled with multimillion-dollar homes, a community now known as Red Ledges. There’s roads, gates, cookie-cutter McMansions, and signs on the private roads with little pictures of golf carts. It used to be a dairy.
They drive down to the North Fields. It’s one of the only places that still feels like the town that Addison Hicken grew up in. Wide open space and cattle. Bumpy and narrow paved roads. A group of five on horseback ride by on their way to round up the herd.
They also pass a woman wearing a knee-length jacket with a fur-lined hood walking a small dog, looking down at her phone. The new, wealthier, residents like to jog and walk their dogs in this part of town, too, Addison Hicken explains.
The North Fields are one of the few places that both new and old residents want to preserve.
One solution could be through conservation easements, a process where farmers and ranchers choose to sell off the development rights to their land, but continue to work the land as they have for generations.
In Wyoming, the Stock Growers Land Trust has been working to balance the tide of new development. The trust provides cash for the development rights, and then farmers can take that money, reinvest in their ranch, and purchase more cattle or more land, Eric Schacht, the executive director of the Stock Growers Land Trust, said.
Attempts to rezone the North Fields to prevent development have been less successful. It seems unfair to penalize those who have managed to hold out the longest, Addison Hicken said. He and his father are both against taking away anyone’s property rights.
However, conservation easements, which have been more popular, are starting to take place in Heber City.
One fourth-generation Heber City family, the Kohlers, are working to partner with Utah Open Lands, the state’s largest statewide land trust, to preserve 100 acres of their farm. They are in the final stages of getting a conservation easement, and hope to have it finalized in October.
About 1,500 acres in Wasatch County, where Heber City lies, have been conserved so far, according to Wendy Fisher, executive director of Utah Open Lands. But the focus on farmland has been more recent, and only a small percentage of the acres preserved have been agricultural, Fisher said.
Grant and Russel Kohler are some of the last dairy farmers in Heber City. They have managed to survive by finding a niche: they built a creamery, learned how to make cheese, and market themselves as hyperlocal.
Grant Kohler said there are two options if you want to make it as a farmer these days. Expand your operation, or find a niche. Expansion in Heber City was not an option. Or as Russel Kohler put it, “You’re almost crazy to be a farmer here, just because it’s so expensive.”
Grant Kohler assumed he would be the last in his family to run the dairy farm. He urged his kids to go to college and do something else. His son Russel tried to do that, but other careers just didn’t stick.
Their barn is high-tech. Robots milk the cows and push hay to the stalls. Their cheese wins awards. Still, their business remains stressful. The trade war sharply curtailed American milk exports, sending domestic prices tumbling even further. The Kohlers expected to buy more dairy cows, instead, they had to sell off about 80. “It’s a tight squeeze,” Grant Kohler said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all the revenue streams except for sales of cheese to grocery stores dried up. Without the cheese business, they wouldn’t have been able to keep the dairy. “We were some of the lucky ones that were kind of able to weather the storm,” Russel Kohler said.
The Kohlers found a niche, a way to stay. But a niche is never big enough to fit more than a few.
For Addison Hicken to realize the fields of his dreams, he’ll need to sell what’s left and move elsewhere. Maybe Montana or Wyoming. A family friend just bought a ranch in Nevada.
“You don’t want it to change, but you have to make the best of it,” he said.
But, he also takes a look around the property. At the house his great-grandfather built. The hook where his grandmother did laundry. Leaving is not quite that easy. For all the changes, Heber City is still home.