Story and photo by Kelli Coomes
Dawn breaks over the trees. A man with a silver head of hair looks out over his herd of cattle, gazing toward the sun as the first rays of sunshine illuminate his gruff-looking silhouette. He’s already been up and working for a few hours.
The sunlight slowly crawls across the land, like a veil being lifted from a piece of art. As the valley becomes lit, the farm comes to life. All that can be seen are acres of growing hay, a small herd of cattle, a few horses and chickens scratching the ground.
At 78, Dell Walker stands straight while surveying the work he has ahead of him. He has animals to feed, hay to haul and cattle to herd. He begins saddling his horse; his hands seem to be moving with a will of their own.
This is his family’s land. Held for generations. It borders the eastern edge of the Provo River, in the southern end of Provo, Utah. The house no longer sits on the farm. It was torn down when the farm became prosperous enough for the family to move into town. That was when Walker was only 10.
“We are a dying breed,” Walker said, his eyes sad. “Our children don’t work the land with us.”
Walker has three grown children. He has many grandkids and a few great grandchildren. None of them are interested in the land, except to sell it, Walker said. “Over my dead body.”
He’s no longer young enough to take care of all the land. A little more than a third of the farm property is now rented out. Horse owners can grow their own hay and house their horses for a monthly fee. The hay that Walker produces is used to feed his own three horses. The land is divided into multiple pastures, old-fashioned fences of chicken wire and log posts marking the boundaries.
Walker’s patch of farmland is one of the many farms that sit next to each other. Across from the paved road that runs as a border on the south edge of the farmland is a stream, and south of that, the homes of many of the farmers. A lot of the land has been sold for development projects.
“We pass on, and the kids left behind pass the land on,” said Glen Horton, who owns the land next to Walker’s. Horton is one of the lucky ones, according to many of the farmers around here. His children are farmers, too.
“It’s sad,” said Joann Walker, Dell’s wife. “We’re losing our culture as Utahns.”
Joann helps with the chickens on the farm and feeding the workers who come during haying season. She still collects fresh eggs for their meals at home, though they buy milk at the store. Milking cows are more expensive than cows for slaughter. They take their herds to auction and to the meat house.
In 78 years, Dell Walker has fought on foreign soil, worked at Geneva Steel, has fought cancer, has had two major heart surgeries and still continues working on his farm. At a young age, he lost his three middle fingers in an accident while working at Geneva Steel. “Finger and thumb are all I need,” he said with a smile.
More than five years ago, Dell Walker was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” Joann said, tears coming to her eyes at the memory. “He walked out and told me we’d be OK, and I believed him.” After two years of chemotherapy, he is in remission.
Three years before that, they found a heart murmur and he had heart surgery. It is normally something found at birth, but his had been missed. The doctors also missed it when he underwent heart surgery 15 years ago because of a major heart attack.
None of this has stopped his stride. Dell smiled and shared his secret: “Hard work and a reason for working.” He owns his house and the income from the farm is keeping him and his wife in the life they enjoy. “We’re happy,” Joann said.