Jordan Freytag + photo

Jordan Freytag

Mar 11
12 min read
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June ~ October 2021

True Leaf Market breaks new ground, sowing seed for the first field trials of vegetable and microgreen seed production in Utah. The True Leaf Market farm, managed by Kat Jones, partner at True Leaf Market (TLM), and Seth Peterson, expert farmer and local to the area. It is located in Wayne County, Utah just outside of Capitol Reef National Park in a place called Caineville, where dealing with the intense heat and limited water is a way of life. The higher temperatures make this place ideal for the production of heat-loving varieties of garden seeds, such as tomatoes, peppers, sunflower, watermelons, and more. The goal is for TLM to begin producing its own seed varieties through selective breeding, but with issues that come along with being a first-year farmer plus the record-setting drought of 2021, they have their work cut out for them.

As one drives east through central Utah, gazing at the red and gray mesas, it would be understandable if Caineville went by unnoticed. It appears as a small cluster of trees and old buildings, some historic and some not, surrounded by plowed fields. A verified ghost town according to Seth whose own familial roots reside in the sandy and clay soils there. A friendly man whose knowledge of the land can only be earned by one who has worked the ground since a teenager. Caineville main street is nothing more than a dirt strip now that passes by the old church (currently, under renovation), his childhood home, a few derelict structures, and the old Cemetery, where Seth’s own grandparents are laid to rest. On top of an area called “the hill” one can view past the trees to the fields beyond them, able to perceive the hidden expanse of farmland (about 161 acres), much of it divided, belonging to a couple of locals, Seth, and now True Leaf Market—about 40 acres.

The idea for a True Leaf Market seed production farm started 15 years ago when Seth, producing wheat seed for True Leaf Market in California, approached Kat about his desire to collaborate on a seed production project here in Utah. Kat, a long-time seed retailer, whose passion started with growing and juicing wheatgrass and barley grass, wanted to get more involved on the ground level with the seed production, moving TLM toward branding their own hybrid seeds. Although she was fond of the idea, circumstances just weren’t aligned at that time: TLM wasn’t in a place to finance such a project and the right piece of land wasn’t on the market. Seth continued his seed production work, living in California for several years, and Kat continued the work at TLM with the dream of the farm harbored between the two of them. Oddly, enough it was the disastrous year of 2020 when circumstances aligned, making the dream of the farm plausible. The pandemic caused seed shortage among the community of farmers that TLM is a part of, making many essential varieties of seed unavailable. “TLM faced an unprecedented short supply of seed varieties while demand continued to skyrocket,” says Kat. TLM had grown substantially since Seth and Kat first spoke, now in a position to support the endeavor. On New Year’s Eve 2020, Seth became aware of farmland available in his hometown that was ideal for the project. The ongoing conversations that she’d had with Seth over the last decade and more seemed ripe to become reality. By March 2021, 40 acres now belonged to TLM.

Seth Peterson, Expert Farmer
Seth Peterson, Expert Farmer

The True Leaf Market farm sits on the east end of Caineville a few yards from the perennial flow of the Fremont River, the water that flood-irrigates these fields. “A primitive method,” Seth says with the hope of eventually converting all the fields to a drip system, which will conserve precious water that they have access to. Water is even more essential in a place like Caineville where the elevation drops suddenly, making it ten to fifteen degrees hotter than thirty miles east or west—a sweltering microclimate. With the record-setting high temperatures, Utah faced in 2021, not providing adequate amounts of water could lead to premature bolting or overall crop failure. “That’s one thing we are worried about this year—running out of water. We are starting to install drip lines to use less water.” The drip system of watering allows an even distribution of water and more control over the amounts of water used. Despite the high temperatures and the limited rights to water, there was enough water this year due to several factors: implementing the drip irrigation system on some fields, not using all the fields, and having plenty of water shares to adequately water the fields that are growing. Water is just one challenge out of many they face; hurdles often come in the form of failing equipment under the beating sun.

“It’s the hardest work I’ve done,” Kat says joyfully. She acquired some older pieces of equipment as a way to learn the nuances that come with being a first-year farmer, facing several moments of one-the-spot repairs. Kat is all smiles about it, “I love it, even though, I had no idea how many problems could happen. I’ve learned there are lots of things that farmers have to deal with that most people who buy produce in stores don’t—there’s not all that stress involved.” The purple radish planted this year was sown thickly due to faulty equipment, a minor issue. It’s just par for the course according to Kat and Seth who full-well understand that troubleshooting is a part of farming. “It was a fifteen-hour day. It was hot . . . pulling the plow, one of the pins would get stuck. So, I would get out and we would use a wrench and pry out the sheer pin and put in a new or modified one and get going again. There are just all these things that farmers have to fix on the fly.” To protect the precious pieces of vintage equipment, construction on a barn began in June. It’s also a place to perform the seed extraction process. Completed in July, the barn looks over the growing fields, serving an important purpose while managing to stay casually picturesque against the Town Point Mesa that looms overhead.

True Leaf Market fields planted and growing
True Leaf Market Farm Sown and Growing

Around the same time in June, the land was lightly tilled and the first seeds were planted. Some fields on the property have been left fallow for over 3 years, making them ideal for organic production. So, Kat and Seth decided to plan both organic and conventional varieties. Of the organic varieties, there is Rutgers Tomato, Sweet Marconi Pepper, Mary Washington Asparagus, Golden Bantam Corn, Red Amaranth. Of the conventional varieties, there is Hamson Tomato, Purple Asparagus, Purple Radish, Sunspot Dwarf Sunflower, and Red Garnet Amaranth. By late June, rows of purple radish seedlings were growing strong on the conventional field. Sunspot Sunflower, a classic sunflower that grows to a medium height with a large yellow-green center sits in the next plot over, quickly maturing. Nearby, the tomatoes and peppers stretch toward the sun along with asparagus fern, whose vibrant red berries are fully formed by mid-August. The same with red amaranth, whose height is truly seen when compared with Seth’s kids who can be seen walking between rows. Kat has had a dream for TLM and it is becoming a reality as the crops mature: “to provide our customers with a closed-loop supply chain--the seed starts with us and ends with you.”

While farmers who manage the other plots in Caineville grow watermelons and other fruits and vegetables to supply the nearby towns, Torrey and Hanksville, every seed variety planted on the True Leaf Market Farm is being grown primarily for seed to be sold across the world. When growing crops for seed, a different perspective on the maturity of certain crop types is necessary. For fruiting varieties, such as the Rutgers Tomato, they are harvested the same way as if one was going to eat the tomato but instead sent through a process to extract the seeds. Once the germination is tested for those Rutgers Tomato seeds they will be good to sell to the public. Non-fruiting varieties, such as herbs, and leafy vegetables are a different story though. “We want it to bolt,” says Seth, referring to non-fruiting crops, further explaining that certain varieties will go to seed according to various indicators, such as day length and daily peak temperatures. Bolting refers to the process by which the plant flowers and “goes to seed” this happens naturally during the plant’s lifecycle, but it can also occur when the plant is overly stressed. They are aiming for natural healthy bolting. Stressed induced bolting can happen prematurely, which can be a result of lack of water, making regimented watering an essential component to successful growth and eventually seed production. In August, they harvested the first Rutgers Tomato seeds using a deseeding machine.

Ripe Rutgers Tomatoes
Ripe Rutgers Tomatoes Ready for Deseeding

Soon these varieties will be available to customers who take comfort in knowing exactly where their seed was produced and those who are just interested in new varieties, cultivated with a newfound passion for the practice. Kat is someone who has a passion for learning, exemplified in her exuberance to work through a problem, and on a farm, problems are bountiful. “It’s a slow process,” she says, “but it is our first season after all.” One could say that this first season is the mere introduction of the land to the growers and the seeds. A local gardener and goat farmer a few miles down the road told Kat, “Let the land tell you what it needs.” And she listened, noting what worked and what didn’t work this season and continuing to be aware of that season after season. Although this first season is looking to be a success, Seth and Kat have their sights set on a better spring season, one that is better planned.

The plans for this fall involve planting Austrian field pea to help break up the clay content of the soil, fix the nitrogen, and adding plenty of organic matter to the soil. Come early spring, this ground will be primed for earlier sowing. A big focus, says Kat, is to get ahead of everything now that she knows what to expect. Even for Seth who has farmed on this land for a myriad of seasons, there is just no knowing what the next season has in store. What plants performed well will be planted again while trying some new varieties and/or types. Planning for the next season is only a small glimpse of their vision for the future. “What really excites me,” Kat says, “is the breeding possibilities.”

The chance to develop True Leaf’s own microgreen and vegetable seed hybrids through selective breeding, a process that takes several years to accomplish but is at the forefront of both of their minds. Eventually, Kat and Seth would like to bring TLM’s breeding experts to Caineville to help them begin the process of isolating certain desired traits of any given varieties, such as a particularly dark tomato, and highlighting those traits to become the standard for a whole new variety. As far as microgreens seed is concerned, Kat lights up at the thought of one day creating a line of sunflower microgreens seeds that have unique flavors much like mustard and basil hybrids, such as lemon basil and cinnamon basil. As of yet, such a sunflower variety does not exist and TLM hopes to bring it to the market.

Naming the varieties is also a great chance to express the uniqueness of the area in which these varieties were born—to draw people into the microclimate of Caineville, an other-worldly pocket of the US. Some of the darkest night skies in the united states exist here (due to lack of light pollution) where the milky way is seen as clearly as day-time clouds; Butch Cassidy and his gang were known to pass through the area frequently (even stealing a portion of Seth’s Grandfather’s sheep!); an ancient nameless people called this area of Utah home who we now refer to as the Fremont People—evidence of their presence found scattered across the variegated landscape in the form of petroglyphs and artifacts; Nasa even has a Mars research station some eighteen miles from the farm in the barren desert beyond the Factory Butte. “Pure rock and dirt. It looks just like mars,” says Kat, the affection in her voice audible. When one truly considers the harsh land surrounding the farm, Caineville becomes nothing short of an oasis. A place to not only offer a reprieve from the sun but a place of growth and innovation, a place where learning can thrive.

Plans to build a research station on the property are on the docket with the aim of serving local high school students interested in the plant sciences and university students majoring in the plant sciences to further their education and research. Seth, who teaches science at one of the local high schools, sees the farm as a great hands-on teaching opportunity for those students who see their future in agriculture. Not to mention for those attending Utah State University earning degrees in horticulture can perform case studies on the farm and help with selection work for the hybridization process.

Every seed has a story, and to know that story makes growing and caring for that seed variety a much more intimate experience. It makes each seed a time capsule of where it came into being, in this case, Caineville and the True Leaf Market Farm. Those growing these future seeds will literally grow a piece of Caineville in their garden hundreds of miles away or more.

Young Farmers Walking Through Tall Amaranth
Young Farmers Walking Through Tall Amaranth

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1 comments

Captain

Capital Reef. wow. Give us a tour.


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