A way to preserve the rural feel of the valley and further the future of agriculture. A way to offer locals and tourists somewhere to enjoy the beauty Cache Valley has to offer, and maybe a sip or two on some artisan wine or hard cider, grown and produced locally.
And ultimately, a way to sustain business in a time when farming is undervalued.
That’s what local niche-farm owners are hoping for in a change in Cache County’s code to allow for wineries. The prospect of the alcohol ordinance change from “dry” has been discussed by the council for more than two years — and with no end in sight, despite another round of workshop prior to the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday.
“I think that there’s actually a lot of interest in having wineries in Cache County,” said Lori Spears, who co-owns Hobbled Dog Orchard on the South end of the valley. “People want to be part of agritourism. They’re interested in kind of closing that gap on the urban-ag interface, locals, tourists; I think it will offer them a comfortable atmosphere.”
Though agriculture has been tied to Cache County since it was founded, the wave of agritourism first hit the county about five years ago as local farms started to diversify to protect profits.
Gibbons Green Gate Farm featured an on-site restaurant near Smithfield. The Vineyards at Mt. Naomi Farms near Hyde Park added a “U-pick” feature where the public could pick grapes to snack on or take home to make wines or food with, and a barn for special events like weddings.
And every day, Mt. Naomi’s owners, Brenda and Keith Meikle, receive calls asking for details on wine tastings at The Vineyards.
“Because most people, when they see the word ‘vineyard,’ they think winery, and they think we already are one,” Keith said.
But due to lack of profitability and encroaching developments, the Meikles — who were on the forefront of trying to preserve farmlands — lose about 30 acres of land a year.
“We’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do we survive on 300 acres or 400 acres of land and remain profitable and stay out of development?’” he said. “We’ve just come to these conclusions, and business leads to business. This seems to be a really profitable course for us to go to, to be able to make more income on our farm on less acres.”
So they appealed to the Cache County Council to amend the ordinance to allow for wineries two years ago.
Councilmember Paul Borup is all for the idea as it “keeps ag land ag land” rather than being sold to developers who create subdivisions.
“I think a winery really shows that we’re an agricultural community, and that’s an agricultural-based product,” Borup said. “So having that winery I think fits in well. It’s a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past, but life is a constantly evolving thing. You want to always respect the past but chart a course for the future too.”
When the County Council met to workshop the proposed ordinance change on Aug. 25, Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney John Luthy and Councilmember Gordon Zilles added that while the county’s code dictates unincorporated areas are “dry,” it’s not really the case.
“We’ve got the state liquor store, or it’s at any convenience store,” Zilles said.
Keith Meikle — who received his master’s degree and winemaker certification from UC Davis — agreed and added that a winery offers more than the alcohol produced there.
“If you want convenience to buy wine, the state liquor store’s right there and you can go buy it a lot easier there than coming here — driving all the way out, walking up to the winery, going through a tasting, buying wine, and then having to drive back home to drink it,” he said. “We’re not the convenience; we’re actually probably the most inconvenient way to buy your wine. We’re selling an experience.”
It’s a similar dream for Hobbled Dog Orchard.
Though Spears and her husband, Ben Kuethe, are hoping to run a hard-cidery as their orchards only have cider apple trees, they too would benefit from the new ordinance.
State code has a loose definition of winery, according to Luthy. Basically, a state-issued winery license includes any alcohol made from fruit.
Spears and Kuethe’s goal is for Hobbled Dog — named for their predilection of adopting pets with special needs — to be an estate farm similar to Mt. Naomi, where people can enjoy the beautiful scenery while they taste the hard apple ciders made onsite.
“I think a lot of people are wanting that local food, you know,” Spears said. “There’s this local food movement, and they’re interested in it. But I also do think that people are becoming more interested in agriculture and farm-based products.”
Blending the hobby of home-brewed hard ciders and wines with a small-farm business was a similar goal of Paradise Valley Orchard owners Ali and Lorin Harrison, though when the couple first saw the hurdles it would take to change the ordinance, they shifted gears toward holding special “U-pick” events similar to those at Mt. Naomi and selling their cider to other cideries for fermentation.
“It just felt daunting,” Ali said. “Having to fight the county didn’t seem worth it to us.”
Space is also an issue for Paradise Valley Orchard — located three miles south of Hobbled Dog, but on only a fraction of the acreage.
“We’re just a small farm,” she said. “We have a cider pressing room, but we don’t want to take up any more land with fermenting facilities. … We’d love to partner up with someone local, though.”
Whether or not a local wine manufacturing facility would be able to take in produce from other local farms is up for debate. As part of the draw for the council is to preserve agricultural properties and give farmers a chance to diversify their interests, the winery ordinance is being proposed as a conditional use permit only for land zoned A10 — or agricultural — and thus an industry subject to the state’s Farmland Assessment Act that dictates a percentage of the products used in manufacturing must be grown on-site, or on land owned by the same person licensed.
While Council Chair Karl Ward is an advocate of holding the winery licenses to a high percentage of on-site growth to keep production small and to dissuade external companies taking advantage of the new ordinance to open a site for manufacturing, council members Borup and Gina Worthen have long argued there need to be allowances for crop failures.
On Tuesday, County Executive Craig Buttars said this year is a prime example of the need as there was a hailstorm that affected the Hyde Park area — including Mt. Naomi Farm.
As Keith said, a local wine is all about the “terroir” — the taste of the land it comes from. But between the early frost, the windstorm and the “freak hailstorm,” Mt. Naomi suffered a complete crop failure this year.
Brenda said as global warming continues, the risk of that happening again also increases.
“If we can’t source something else, if it absolutely has to be grown on our farm, we’re doomed,” she said. “No one else does that.”
While the quorum of the council present on Tuesday’s workshop (Ward, Borup, Worthen, and Barbara Tidwell) were in agreement that an allowance should be granted in cases of crop failure, there was still no consensus on whether the ordinance should be directly tied to agritourism or written into code under a separate agricultural option.
If such an ordinance is not passed, the Meikles and Harrisons said they were concerned for the future of agritourism in the valley.
“Here are the cold, hard facts,” Brenda said. “Especially after COVID, there’s a mass migration of people coming from heavily populated areas to the country. Our farmland is going to be gone. There’s got to have some kind of value for farmland when it’s not possible to keep selling hay and wheat. Field crops cannot compete against housing.”
Spears and Kuethe have no plans to sell their farm if the ordinance doesn’t go through, but they said they’ll be forced to sell their cider apples to a larger company for fermentation, like the Harrisons do, if they want to make a profit.
The only other option is annexation into the closest municipality.
“And that’s the rub, right?” Borup said. “I mean, we’d like to keep them, but the county really isn’t set up to have a lot of businesses.”
The council will meet again to workshop the ordinance in two weeks, but as the ordinance has not been officially drafted, there has not yet been a date set for public comment.