As Utah urbanizes, fruit fests celebrate heritage rather than what’s grown here
There are more than a dozen festivals each year celebrating Utah’s agricultural industry. One of the longest running is Strawberry Days in Pleasant Grove.
The first celebration dates back to 1921 when the city was a big producer of strawberries. The annual event was organized by what was then known as the Wasatch Club to bring awareness to Pleasant Grove's strawberry market.
"It got bigger and bigger and went from a little evening celebration, now we're up to about a nine day celebration," said Strawberry Days committee chair Lisa Young.
Over a century later, the festival continues but the strawberry fields are gone largely due to urban development and population growth.
"Now we bid it out and we have to get those strawberries from California. And bless their hearts in those floods they had. But we're still getting enough strawberries."
Young said they typically go through 1,400 cases of the red berries during the event. Strawberries are still grown in Utah, but local production has gone down in the last 50 years.
"Across the Salt Lake and Utah valleys fruit and vegetable production has taken a hit due to urbanization in areas with viable and fertile farmland," said Bailee Woolstenhulme, spokesperson at the Utah Department of Food and Agriculture.
Utah's dry climate and the amount of labor needed to produce strawberries are other reasons for the decline.
"In the 60s and 70s and into the 80s a lot of the strawberry production was consolidated in climates where they could have a much longer growing season," said Brent Black, an extension fruit specialist and professor at Utah State University. "So now if you look at nationwide statistics, the Central Coast of California is a huge strawberry producing region. Florida, a big strawberry producing region, Oregon a little bit into Washington because they have a much longer growing season."
Black said development hasn't impacted strawberry producers as much as those who grow other fruits in the state.
"A lot of the development in Utah has happened in areas that were traditionally well-suited to fruit production. And that's what kind of hit the peach industry and raspberries and some of the other crops. I think with strawberries it's been more this kind of dominance of these optimum climates and labor that's kind of pushed it."
According to Black, tart cherries and apples are some of Utah’s biggest fruit crops.
Regardless of the volume of local production, Carol Edison, a retired state folklorist and co-editor of the book “This is the Plate,” said it's not so much about the food at these festivals. It’s more of a way to bring people together and honor the heritage of the community.
"Every year they [visitors] get to go back to the town mom grew up in or the town grandpa was from. And they often meet family, old friends, old neighbors, and they're part of something that's different from their daily life. And that's really the way these festivals function."
Perhaps the same can be said for Strawberry Days and its 102-year legacy as well as other food-themed festivals across Utah.
The 2023 Strawberry Days run June 10-18.