WEST WEBER, Weber County — The corn maze was not Ron Gibson’s idea.
In fact, if he’s honest, the sixth-generation farmer was rather skeptical of the chaos a corn maze might create on the picturesque property in Weber County where his family has raised everything from sugar beets to dairy cows since 1869.
But even before a pandemic threw the agriculture industry into the proverbial meat grinder this year, Gibson hoped to do what farmers have always done if they want to survive a highly competitive, constantly changing world — adapt.
“I have a son who wants to come back and be my partner, and I’m trying to figure out what is it for his future that we can do to make it sustainable,” said Gibson, known in agricultural circles as “the Milkman” because he has spent most of his adult life running a dairy farm.
“So my wife in 2015 decided she was going to do something to help us, and she had the idea of the corn maze. ... We all kind of came kicking and screaming, weren’t really excited about it. You know, all of a sudden, we’re just going to invite the entire world to the farm.”
It’s a good thing, however, that he listened to his wife and not his own discomfort because it has done more than help them stay afloat financially.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” Gibson said, smiling and shaking his head as he drives his SUV past the group of schoolchildren gathered at the corn maze entrance. “One thing I love about the corn maze is that it helps us with our social license.”
And by that, Gibson means that if new developers or residents take issue with living next to or near a farm, the residents who’ve embraced their evolution will be among their first and most ardent defenders.
“I feel like if you don’t have that social license, it’s pretty tough to have the kind of business I have,” he said. “We farm about 2,000 acres, and we’re in Davis and Weber counties, and a very large percentage of that land, if we didn’t farm it, would be gone to development.”
Gibson is not even the first farmer in his family to rethink his business model in an effort to hold on to a livelihood that is much more than a job.
“To my dad, and my family, there is no amount of zeros you could put behind a number that would make me want to sell my farm,” he said. “As long as I can economically stay in business. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it. ... There is nothing else I want to do. It’s such a deep, I don’t even know what the word is, such a deep stewardship.”
He laughs at the idea that what he does is a job.
“There is way too much stress, not near enough money,” he said laughing. “If I was doing this for a job, I’d be an idiot. ... But there’s just something about going out there and working your guts out and seeing what it produces. ... When we sit down for a Sunday dinner, and everything we eat came from our farm, that’s pretty cool.”
Some feel a sense of accomplishment when it comes to a job well done, but for Gibson, it’s something else.
“What it does to me at this time of year, I just have huge feelings of gratitude,” he said. “My house is right, dead smack in the middle of my farm, and we have beautiful windows to see everything, and you just really can see how we’ve been blessed.”
It’s a life’s work that is steeped in tradition, but make no mistake about it, Gibson and his kin do not let their roots keep them stuck in the past.
“One thing that I feel like previous generations have done a very nice job of around this farm is adapting to change,” he said. “My dad and my grandpa taught me that you always have to be agile, on your feet, and try to (adapt). ... One of the problems we have in agriculture is that as the world changes around us, we think, “Oh, that’s not how Grandpa did it. That’s not how we do it.’ We have to make sure our agricultural family businesses are really businesses, and then we have to manage them like businesses.”
That allowed his father and grandfather to move from growing sugar beets and tomatoes to operating a successful dairy farm — something Gibson has embraced as well. But in recent years, independent dairy farmers find themselves competing against massive, industrial-type dairy farms.
With very little profit in the business, the advantages have shifted to larger operations. The development of nearby land has also made dairy farming tougher as many people love the look of farmland, but don’t have that same affection for the scent of farming.
That reality pushed the Gibsons to rethink their operation, and while his wife came up with the corn maze suggestion, Gibson decided to look at growing produce. The key was to find something that will grow in Utah’s arid soil, can be packaged or processed locally, and has a sustainable market.
“We have had the feeling for the last four or five years that we needed to adapt our business into something different,” Gibson said. “So what we’re doing here, we grow onions. It’s a significant part of our business, and we needed a place to store them. And so this is our new onion storage shed.”
Gibson waves his hand at a bustling operation where truckloads of onions are boxed in wooden crates constructed by his crews and stored in the cool, dark shelter of a shiny, new red warehouse. The smell of onions wafts through the cool air as he talks about why he chose onions.
He found both a partner in growing and harvesting the onions, as well as a company that could process and get their onions to markets.
“Our processor Onions 52 are the people who buy our onions, and they have big contracts with Walmart and Kroger,” he said. “Remember, you have to have manufacturing for agricultural products.”
“Onions 52 has developed a great business,” Gibson said. “And so there is an opportunity there. It wouldn’t do us any good to grow 250 acres of potatoes because there’s no way to distribute them. This year we have 30 acres of potatoes, and we will sell every bag that we have right out the front door of this building ... to people direct. If we grow more than we can sell, we’ll just throw them away.”
Allen Bennett is a third-generation onion farmer, and he was thrilled when Gibson approached him about joining forces to sell onions.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t stand it,” Bennett said to Gibson’s laughter. “Because he can continue on my business because I’m getting old enough that I want to retire.”
Though they’d been planning on the expansion for about a year, they waited until August to build their storage facility because of the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 restrictions. The pandemic has caused all kinds of issues for farmers, but both men said, in some ways, it’s just another set of unforeseen circumstances they’ve had to overcome.
“There are going to be roller coasters in any ag products,” Bennett said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The bulk of the products produced by U.S. farmers and ranchers is sold to the food service industry, which was decimated by the pandemic when restaurants, schools and cruise ships shut down.
“Fifty percent of the food that’s eaten by Americans,” Gibson said, “it’s through a food service outlet.”
But what they do have with onions, as well as the potatoes, tomatoes and corn Gibson is also growing, is a way to process and get to market what they’re growing — at least in the immediate future. That breakdown during the pandemic is what hurt beef and sheep ranchers, even as grocery store shelves sat empty.
“Onions are not very different from that either. ... You just eat more in restaurants,” Gibson said of the fact that there are no guarantees in farming. “This is our third shed full of onions. We’ll have another one full besides this, and we just hope we can sell them. The trouble with agricultural commodities is you just hope you can sell it before it goes bad. It’s not like you can say, ‘OK the market is not good, let’s just shut that door and save it and we’ll be back in six months.’”
While the pandemic has created even more uncertainty and strife in an already unpredictable industry, it’s also pushed to the forefront private and public conversations about where Americans get their food from.
“Normal people don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘What are we going to eat today? I have to figure out how I’m going to get food,’” he said. “Many other countries do. And yet, at the same time, that’s because we live in the most efficient, most blessed land in the world. ... But if we don’t trade with other countries, we’re in trouble because we have extra food.”
He said some of the reforms that have come under President Donald Trump, including the phase one deal with China, look like they’re going to help farmers. And while he will always remain concerned that politics could undo tomorrow what it fixed yesterday, farming on all fronts was looking more promising than it had in many years before a virus shut down all supply chains.
“It was a very surreal experience to go into (groceries stores) and see there is no food to buy,” he said. “And yet, our markets are gone. We’re getting no money for our products.”
Gibson said protecting the country’s food source has to be a national priority. The difficulties faced by both consumers and food producers is what led Gibson to help create “Farmers Feeding Utah,” which takes monetary donations and buys product from farmers or ranchers and gives it to communities suffering under the weight of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
He said the COVID-19 relief offered was very specific and only available to farmers who could show losses tied to the pandemic.
“So even though it might look like we’re subsidizing agriculture, we’re not,” he said. “What we’re doing is protecting our food supply.”