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Bounty in the Badlands

Found in: | Inside | Wellness |

Springtime in the desert has sprung and nowhere is it more apparent than the slate gray badlands of Caineville, Utah. On a 40-acre plot on the Fremont River, nectarine trees blossom pink, vegetable greens crowd the greenhouse and two brand-new baby goats just joined the world.

"Look at that!" said Randy Ramsley upon entering his goat barn. Two glistening, pint-sized goats blinked in bewilderment as they stumbled at their mother's hooves.

Ramsley approached slowly, clipped their umbilical cords, and stepped back. "We'll just let nature have its way for a while," he said.

Here on Mesa Farm, surrounded by desolation, Randy Ramsley makes the desert bloom. Under the shadow of Luna Mesa, he produces everything from lettuce to peaches to goat cheese - all organically and without chemicals. A growing family of 50-some goats grazes the weeds in his fields and makes fertilizer for the one-acre vegetable garden, milk for cheese, and meat for the table.

"That's sustainability," said Ramsley. After 15 years of working soil deemed "sterile" by the laboratory, his vision of abundance without harming the land is almost complete.

Ramsley's purist agrarian philosophy hasn't made life easy for him, though. As if the toil of running a small farm weren't enough, recent changes in Utah law pass more costs on to already-struggling organic farmers. Beyond the farm, his efforts to protect the nearby desert from off-road vehicles have caused friction in the small community. But comfort has never been Ramsley's goal.

"I've got to find as much truth as I can about this life and live it," he said on a walk around the farm, a blue ball cap covering his mop of sun-bleached blond hair. Faded blue jeans and suspenders matched his compact build, reminiscent of a wrestler.

Ramsley's version of the truth turns out to be pretty simple. Growing up on a South Dakota farm instilled a strong sense of community and a nurturing ethic towards the land.

"We believe that it is possible for farming to be returned to the people," he wrote on his website, "that society's redemption depends on a new set of values that recognize the importance of sustainability and the family farm."

Despite Ramsley's passion for organic farming, Mesa Farm will not be certified organic this year for the first time since 1994. Last year, the state of Utah cut funding to its organic certification program and passed those costs on to small farmers, about $800 per year for Mesa Farm. Ramsley will keep growing organically but the problems of the organic brand, he said, go beyond cost.

"Organic certification has allowed large corporations to break into and take advantage of small agriculture," he said. "They own the word ?organic' now.

"The whole machine takes us away from this," Ramsley said, walking through his fruit orchard, "which is really where we need to be." He said buying food locally from trusted, small, organic farmers is more important than the government stamp of approval.

Ramsley plucked a pink blossom from a nectarine tree and explained how the fruit develops from the flower and how the changing climate is impacting fruit yields.

"We are losing this knowledge," he said. "The old boys are going away. All the family farmers are gone."

The numbers paint a stark picture of struggling small farmers in America. Between 1999 and 2006, the U.S. lost more than 98,000 farms and 23 million acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Dept of Agriculture.

Ramsley laments the shift from an agricultural society to a culture based on consumption that, he said, brings big impacts to the natural world. He sees consequences beyond the physical environment.

"As we become detached from the land, we become detached from our heart and our soul," he said. "The more comfortable we make ourselves the more uncomfortable we become. And we can never be happy when we are constantly seeking physical comfort. It's impossible.

"You have to find satisfaction in what you are doing," he continued. "That's what the old farmers used to do. What sustainable agriculture also offers the community is a break. It's a return."

Mesa Farm was Ramsley's return to living simply and close to the land. After years of working in construction in San Diego, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, he stumbled upon Caineville and it spoke to him.

"I just became amoured with the place," he explained. "I'm not sure if I chose Caineville or if Caineville chose me." In 1998, he and his wife, Debra, made the move from the city to the desert.

That deep-seeded sense of place led Ramsley to work for the land beyond his own 40 acres. In the face of off-road vehicle damage around nearby scenic icon Factory Butte, he spearheaded a campaign to protect the area - and really irked his neighbors in the process.

"If you are an environmentalist (around here), it's like you are aligned with the devil," he said. "It's almost as though protecting the biosphere is counter to the culture."

Ramsley was concerned about impacts to the scenery, pollution in his water supply and the federally threatened and endangered cactus species that were being trampled by tire treads. As a result of his efforts, and with the help of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Bureau of Land Management closed 186,000 acres to ORV use around Factory Butte in 2006. Over 220 miles of trails and 2,600 acres remain open for ORVs.

"I don't want to make any enemies," Ramsley explained. "It has been really hard having my life threatened, people flipping me the bird, honking horns at me, giving me the moon and harassing me in the auto parts store. All those things are no fun. But if I had to do it again, I would have to do it again because I have to sit with myself at night."

Down the highway in Hanksville, opposition to protecting Factory Butte is obvious. A gas station sells t-shirts with a cactus shaped like a middle finger and the caption "SUWA Protect This. Ride Factory Butte." Gas station owner Duke Alvey disagrees with the closure and said business has decreased a result.

Back on the farm, Ramsley sees the issue from a global perspective. "Look at the species that are just going down. That's not good. That's really my environmentalism . . . We have to live in harmony on this biosphere if humanity is going to evolve. Because without the biosphere, we are goners."

Ramsley's only help on the farm is 24-year-old Alex Doan. He recently moved out from Pennsylvania to live and work at Mesa Farm. He found the place through the organization Willing Workers on Organic Farms; it was the only farm listed in Utah.

"This is not farming country," Doan said. "I wanted to see someone cultivating on land that's not arable. He's definitely doing that. This is basically farming in the desert."

"I think his favorite are the goats," Doan continued with a laugh. "Wrangling goats."

At age 59, Ramsley shows the years spent working the land under the desert sun. His face is weatherworn with creased patterns reminiscent of the parched desert that surrounds.

"I realize now that I've been here long enough that the land and I are connected, are the same," he explained, falling into another story over a cup of coffee at the roadside Mesa Farm Market where he serves salads, bread, goat cheese, and coffee. He also supplies produce to five local restaurants and the local farmer's market in nearby Torrey.

"One night," Ramsley continued, "I was walking around checking on stuff and I realized that I knew the land by the way it rolled, the way it felt . . . It's like I'm rooted to it. It's something that is really necessary for spirit, for me to know that feeling - Here I am. This is what I am."

While he daydreams about retirement, it still seems far off. His two sons, both in their 30s, don't seem interested in becoming farmers, he said. But his energy and passion for his work show no sign of waning.

"I hope that someone will take my place to keep this thing going and let me sit on the porch," he said, smiling. ". . . Then maybe one day I'll wander off across the river and out into the Blue Hills and drop over dead and have the crows carry me away." He laughed. "That's my future."

After coffee, Ramsley walked back out to the goat barn. A distant commotion ensued.

From yonder he hollered, triumphant, "Hey! We got two more!"

Nathan Rice writes from Boulder, Colo.

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