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.”

The rewarding challenges of transracial adoption

Story and slideshow by CHRISTIE TAYLOR

Experience the lively dancing and drumming at Asante Dance and Drum.

It’s a typical Saturday at Asante Dance and Drum in Lindon, Utah, with moms accompanying energetic children to their weekly classes. The chilly spring morning hasn’t dampened any of the families’ spirits as they enthusiastically welcome each other to class.

One of the usual dance teachers is unable to attend this week’s lesson, which sends the moms into organization mode as they try to figure out a fill-in for her class of 5-year-olds. One woman bravely offers, settling any disturbance the lively morning has suffered.

Nothing is distinctive about this morning or this scenario except every mom who has come to this studio is white, and every child is black.

Another feature that sets this particular morning apart is the rhythmic and repetitive drumbeats that begin to float through the air as the boys begin their drum lesson. The pounding sound from hands hitting leather-covered drums takes on a faraway sound of an ancient African village.

In another room, fast-paced hip-hop tempos pour from the speakers of a class full of African-American girls practicing the week’s hip-hop dance lesson.

The moms gather in the foyer chatting while the background beats and music play. With big smiles on their faces and enormous amounts of pride in their tones, they discuss their children’s weekly happenings.

The commonality of these women is they have all adopted transracial or transcultural children. The terms were designated to describe the process of adopting a child of one ethnicity or race by parents of another race or ethnicity, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

“In the United States these terms usually refer to the placement of children of color or children from another country with Caucasian adoptive parents,” the website states.

The classes at Asante provide a support group for these white parents and their adopted black children, and offer the diversity the children aren’t exposed to in their everyday lives.

The adoptions of the students at Asante fill both the transracial and transcultural categories. Most of the children in this group who were adopted transculturally came from Ethiopia.

Hannie Smith, 13, who was adopted from that country when she was 4 years old, thinks the dance class has been a great way to reconnect to her culture. “It’s cool to bring us all together,” she says about the weekly class.

Smith, who lives in Utah County and is maybe one of five ethnic students in her kindergarten through 12th-grade-level school, loves coming to the class and connecting with other children like her.

Asante Dance and Drum was formed specifically for children like Smith who are adopted by white parents and experience little diversity in their communities. The original founder of the group left and it was up to the moms to keep the program running.

The dedicated women running the program want the group to expand to include anyone interested in learning more about the diverse group and to children of all ethnicities.

“We’re not just about adoption, we’re about the whole child, celebrating our differences and similarities,” said Sage Service, one of the adoptive moms.

Service adopted her daughter, Mya, as an infant. She has taken Mya to the dance class since she was 3 months old to expose her to the diversity as well as show support for the program.

The lack of diversity these adopted children experience is one of the main reasons why transracial adoptions are so controversial in the United States.

Adoption experts seem to have conflicting opinions on children being placed in homes without at least one parent who resembles them in ethnicity, according to HHS.

Some think a child should always be placed with at least one parent of the same race so the child has a way of forming a racial identity; others argue that race shouldn’t even be considered when determining placement of a child. The latter feel the family needs of the child far outweigh ensuring they are placed with same-race parents, according to HHS.

In 1994 a bill addressing transracial and transcultural adoption came before Congress. The bill, submitted by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum  of Ohio, caused intense debate among members of Congress, but eventually passed both the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Multiethnic Placement Act brought people from opposite sides of the controversy together and paved the way for both sides to agree. According to HHS, “adults of all cultures need to work together to help adopted children of all cultures reach their highest potential.”

While having a family has been a huge benefit in the lives of the children at Asante, a wish for more diversity education, especially in school, was a common theme among them. Many said that although they were happy with their home lives, school was more of a challenge.

“I wish we did talk about it [diversity] more,” said Hope Vanderwerff, a 14-year-old attending Canyon View Junior High in Orem. “We learn about other countries in world geography, but that’s about it.”

Diversity aside, some experts believe the rise in transracial and transcultural adoptions can be attributed to the scarcity of young white children available for adoption, according to HHS.

But some families have other reasons for adopting transracially.

Anna Watson was a county worker who had eight biological children before she decided on transracial adoption. She met her daughter, Jane, while working in foster care when Jane was an infant. (Both have requested pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)

When Watson applied to adopt the infant she was denied. “We were the wrong color,” she said.

She wouldn’t accept that as a legitimate answer and hired an attorney to sue for custody. Jane’s biological family fully supported Watson’s intent to adopt and she eventually won the case.

“She was born on drugs, she shook and threw up and was developmentally delayed,” Watson said about Jane. The biggest reward and challenge was all the hard work it took to get her daughter to the healthy, beautiful young woman she is today.

When Jane was about 17 months old, Watson discovered the toddler’s biological mother was pregnant again. She wanted to adopt that baby as well. She was told the infant would be placed with her when she was born. Instead, the newborn was placed with an ill-equipped 65-year-old woman because she was also black.

She said the state even went so far as to call her and threaten to pull her foster care license if she chose to pursue the adoption.

Watson went to court a second time and sued for custody anyway.

In court, Jane was asked to draw a picture of herself and her mom. The young girl drew herself as brown and her mom as white. Watson said that when the court asked her daughter why she had chosen those colors, Jane said, “Because heavenly father said so.”

She won the case and legally adopted Jane’s sister.

Jane, now 19, teaches African-American and hip-hop classes at Asante and is getting ready to serve an LDS mission in Atlanta. Her sister was accepted to Brigham Young University and will attend this fall.

Jane said it was interesting growing up in Utah. With little diversity outside of her family, she found school a challenge.

“I experienced a lot of stereotypical name-calling, she said. “Sometimes I would get offended, but realized they just didn’t understand or they were doing it to be rude.”

The only time she would bring it up to her mom was if it was constant. Other than that she would just try to stand up for herself.

“My mom was so forward, so if it was small comments I would just keep them to myself,” she said.

Susie Augenstein didn’t struggle with the adoption process itself. Her challenges began after she brought her adopted children home.

Augenstein adopted a sister and brother from Ethiopia, both of whom had survival issues. She said her son, who was struggling the most, would often push his new parents to test their love for him. She said they had to constantly reassure him.

It took a lot of time, patience and counseling to get him to trust the parents and their love for him.

That was tested again during a recent trip to Ethiopia. The Augensteins’ son feared they were taking him back, when in actuality the family was going to meet the children’s aunt. When she placed the children for adoption, she told the orphanage that the biological mother was dead. That was the only way the institution would take the children.

Augenstein recommends that any parent who adopts a child, whether transracial or transcultural, find a good counselor who can help deal with the issues of trust that children may experience.

Like many of the other moms at Asante, Carrie Peterson was inspired to adopt after learning about children’s poor living conditions. In her case she was compelled to adopt after hearing media reports about the horrific conditions of Romanian orphans. Although she ultimately did not adopt children from that country, she did adopt two newborn girls from Philadelphia.

Peterson said that in 1992, the concept of transracial adoption was fairly new in Utah.

She found that being among the first families to adopt transracially caused many people to be patronizing because they thought she was so “saintly” for adopting poor black children.

“We’re just a family, we just love each other,” she said. She doesn’t feel saintly about her choice to adopt; she just wanted to have a family and these children needed one.

Sage Service doesn’t feel any better than anyone else either for her choice to adopt transracially. “Mya would still be the amazing girl she is and have a great heart had I not adopted her,” she said. She feels Mya’s experiences would be different, but not better or worse.

Rhonda Fairbourn, the adoptive mom who filled in for the absent dance teacher, thinks each dimension of raising children, whether biological or adopted, has its struggles.

“I was living in a bubble,” she said about her life before she adopted. “I don’t live in a bubble anymore because of the kids’ struggles.” All her children have had problems in all different ways.

These families can all attest that adopting transracially has its challenges. And although it’s controversial, the love they feel for their children is real.

As Sonya Doty, an adoptive mom said, “It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding.”

Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis

by MATT BERGSTROM

At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.