3 Squares Produce keeps farming alive in Salt Lake County

Story and slideshow by CALLI PETERSON

View the main orchard with 3 Squares Produce owners Ralph Larsen and Jack Wilbur.

Owning a family-operated business for more than 70 years can be tough, but running a farm business in the urban Salt Lake County can prove to be even tougher. Ralph Larsen, initial owner of what is now 3 Squares Produce, never let that stop him from continuing what he knows to do.

WHERE IT BEGAN

Larsen moved to Orchard Drive in Bountiful, Utah, around the age of 9 with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. Since then, he has lived in the same white, green-trimmed farmhouse planting vegetables and growing fruit trees.

“We moved out here in 1938,” Larsen said. “July 18th, I think it was. Orchard Drive was called Orchard Drive because it had orchards.”

While his father worked as a janitor, Larsen and his family looked for other ways to supply their household with the income they needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

“Back in the Depression, if you wanted money, you go and find a job,” Larsen said. “We started out picking cherries. We had cows, and we had pigs, chickens, turkeys one year and we had geese.”

As time passed, Larsen chose not to leave his farm life behind. He adamantly continued his family farm and welcomed his brother, wife, daughter and son-in-law to help keep the business thriving.

In 2009, Larsen’s son-in-law, Jack Wilbur, took charge and turned Larsen Farms into 3 Squares Produce.

Wilbur grew up gardening with his father and then married Kari Cutler, Larsen’s daughter, who happened, as Wilbur said, to be a “farmer’s daughter.” This union brought him to Larsen, proving to be just what he needed.

“We started [the orchard] and two gardens,” Wilbur said. “That’s why we call it 3 Squares Produce. My wife likes to say we’re doing our part to help people have three square meals a day.”

But 3 Squares Produce is not just a small farm. Wilbur advanced Larsen’s business and initiated a CSA. The CSA helps the Larsen and Wilbur families stay connected to the community by providing shares to their customers. Wilbur said that about half of the business is a farm and the other half is the Community Supported Agriculture.

Wilbur spends his nights and weekends working at Larsen’s orchard and planting at the other 3 Squares Produce properties. Those properties include: two small orchards in Bountiful, a backyard orchard in Farmington, an orchard in West Valley and four private residence yards in the Salt Lake area.

“In order to make it as a small farm business in the city,” Wilbur said, “you pretty much have to have different fields in different locations. We grow the things that grow the best in the areas that grow the best.”

When Wilbur is not working in the orchards or gardens, he works as a public information officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, a state agency that promotes and regulates agriculture and business.

“It was not by design, but now pretty much my entire life is agriculture one type or another,” Wilbur said. “I’m either promoting it or writing about it.”

Though farming can turn into serious work, Larsen’s authentic humor and genuine personality keep the family-operated business full of laughs. His stories, told from a straightforward perspective, lead to unmistakably unforgettable stories such as the one about the skunks who enjoyed reading the newspaper.

“You know how we used to get rid of skunks?” Larsen said. “Barrel of water with a ramp going up and put a newspaper up there, see? And the skunks would climb up there to read the paper, and they’d read and fall in and drown.”

Larsen enjoys making jokes and sharing stories. And Wilbur makes sense of the tales.

“Actually, the rest of the story is, he put eggs, I think, eggs or something on the paper,” Wilbur said. “So they didn’t actually get up there to read the paper.”

Larsen chuckled, “Put down they read the paper.”

Even though Wilbur came to take care of the business, 86-year-old Larsen still makes his way working in the blossoming orchard and tending to the tasteful fruits and gardens. He contributes as much as he can to 3 Squares Produce and fills the long work days with wisdom and humor.

“We planted a tree the other day,” Larsen said. “Five years and we’ll be able to start picking. You know how old I’m going to be? Someone’s going to have to hold me up to pick the peaches.”

Wilbur nodded, adding, “He’ll still do it. You bet he will.”

TIMES ARE CHANGING

Though the work of a farmer never seems to be complete, Larsen cannot help but look back on the way things used to be when his home in Bountiful was not surrounded by paved roads and fast-moving cars.

“The street was a dirt road out here,” Larsen said. “We’d go down there and play baseball and football right there in the street.”

Larsen and Wilbur enjoy reflecting on the changes made to Bountiful and farming in general.

“Everything’s changing,” Larsen said. “Twenty years from now it’s going to be really different.”

Wilbur added, “And farming too. There’s not going to be these little farms anymore.”

They often look back on the way things used to be, but they still work just as hard, if not harder, making sure the past is not forgotten.

“Times have changed, and there are not that many farms like this anymore,” Wilbur said. “That’s kind of why we do this — to keep it going.”

Though towns are booming and land is becoming harder to acquire, Larsen and Wilbur still think about the beauty in what farming can do for a community.

“Every year in the spring anything’s possible,” Wilbur said. “That’s the neat thing about farming. Look at those young plants, right now. They’re just going to be wonderful crops with big yields. Who knows what’ll happen.”

WHY THEY KEEP GOING

Though Larsen has spent many years working in the orchards, he still cannot find a way to stop. He says he does what he knows to do.

“Might as well do something,” Larsen said. “It’s a good day when I can get out of bed and walk. If I quit walking, I’ll probably die.”

Wilbur added, “It really does keep you going.”

Wilbur will follow in his father-in-law’s footsteps and continue planting and growing fruits and vegetables.

“I don’t really have a complete sense at what’s going to happen here, but I do have control over what I do,” Wilbur said. “I will probably be doing this the rest of my life.”

Though towns are growing and the weather is uncertain, the life of a farmer finds its way molding into the ever-changing world. 3 Squares Produce discovered a way to keep going and remain family-operated.

“Sometimes our life doesn’t turn out quite the way we think it’s going to,” Wilbur said. “It turns out in ways we can never imagine, but it’s perfect, and that’s sort of what happened here.”