140-year-old family farm in Utah staying close to its roots

PAYSON, Utah (AP) — It's a cool, fall afternoon, and 87-year-old Payson resident, Ron Jensen, sits at his kitchen table inside a nearly 50-year-old home he designed and built himself.

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His wife of 60 years, Gerry Jensen, sits at the kitchen counter and looks on as her husband talks about their family's life on the farm. Tears well up in their eyes as Ron Jensen tells about a life once lived — a life still worth hanging on to.

It was in the 1860s when Ron Jensen's grandfather, Carl John Slein, partnered with his wife's brother in purchasing some land in Benjamin after immigrating from Scandinavia. After spending time working in the mines, farming looked to be the safer and possibly more lucrative option — and for a while, it was.

"It was the Zion culture back then," Ron Jensen said. "The early settlers were building communities and farming the land, and my grandparents were part of that."

Ron Jensen's grandfather soon bought out the rest of the farm from his brother-in-law, and was building a successful farm with a variety of crops and livestock. Then, World War I came, followed by the Great Depression and World War II, bringing along many years of economic hardship. The farm in Benjamin, like many other farms, nearly went to ruin. However, Ron Jensen's father, who was now leading the operation, saw poultry as a way to make a viable farm living.

"In the late 1930s and 1940s, my dad had a chicken coop," Ron Jensen said. "During those years, we had between 900 and 1,500 chickens, and at that time, that was a lot. I remember as a young child having to gather the eggs and brush off all the chicken poop so the eggs were clean before loading them into the carton to sell. It was a hard job, and we kids sure did complain, but we learned a lot."

With the growth of mechanization, gathering by hand and washing eggs became a thing of the past for many farms. Ron Jensen said that if farmers didn't embrace the use of machines to do all the egg gathering and cleaning, then they fell behind, and his family's farm did just that. Even so, farming has a variety of mediums, and soon the family began to farm sugar beets, sweet corn and string beans.

"We would harvest our crops for the California Packing Corp., which is now known as Del Monte," he said. "Sugar beets were a popular crop back then, and we did all right for ourselves during that time."

While farming was a large part of his childhood, like many young men, Ron Jensen wanted to see what was beyond the acres of sugar, corn and livestock. He wanted to expand his knowledge base beyond what was taught at the local school and what he learned on the farm.

So, he went to college, joined the Army and married his sweetheart. The early 1960s were good to him and his family, as he earned a master's degree in economics, started a job for the government as a rural housing loan officer and became a father to his oldest two daughters.

It was only a few years later, however, when war struck his family again, and he was called into active duty to serve during the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969. Being called to fight in a battlefield was hard for the young husband and father, and when he came home, he would return to the family farm often to find solace and drown out negative thoughts with positive action.

"At the farm, there is always something to do — feeding animals, hauling hay, digging and filling holes," Ron Jensen said. "It helped keep my mind occupied."

Visiting and working on his family's farm, he said, was a form of recreation for him as he worked several jobs to support his growing family through the 1960s and 70s. It was in 1977 when his father asked him to take over the farm. Ron Jensen knew what a huge responsibility running a farm was, but he understood how important it was to his family and future generations to come.

With two older daughters, two young boys and a new baby girl, he agreed to take it over, and together, continue the farming tradition. For the next several years, the Jensen Family Farm planted and harvested a variety of crops, including sweet corn that the three daughters would bring home to sell to neighbors.

The kids also participated in local stock shows that included fun pastimes like the calf scramble. It was during one such event when the oldest son, Eric, won a calf he named Suzie Q., which the family was now charged with raising. A couple years later, their other son, Ryan, won another calf, beginning what is now a major source of the farm's production.

"I couldn't see feeding just two cows," Ron Jensen said. "I had a pasture, so I bought a bunch of heifers, and we started raising cows."

In addition to the 80 acres of farmland that the family owns, the Jensen Family Farm has a 160-acre pasture for raising cattle.

"We spent a lot of our time out at the farm, feeding and taking care of the cows and hauling hay," Ron Jensen said. "We didn't get out for family vacations because we were on the farm, and sometimes the kids would complain. We felt bad that we didn't take the kids other places, but years later, it is the farm where the kids and grandchildren like to come back to."

In fact, three of the five Jensen children have homes on the farm, and spend much of their time running it. Many of the couple's 17 grandchildren have learned how to take care of cows and haul hay.

Ron Jensen, through tear-filled eyes, recalled a time when a truck carrying hay came down through their Payson neighborhood, with many of the barrels tumbling out the back. The driver of the truck needed help loading the hay back on, and two of Ron Jensen's grandsons went out to help the man haul the hay so he could get on his way.

"I was so proud of those two boys," Ron Jensen said. "Growing up working on a farm, they knew how to haul hay, and they knew how to work. It was real neat to watch those boys do what not many these days can."

Ron Jensen is the first to acknowledge that the farming industry isn't what it used to be. He says the farm barely breaks even each year, if that. Each of his kids who work and live on the farm have outside jobs that bring in the bulk of their income. Even so, the Jensen family is working hard every day to keep the farming culture alive.

"Farming is a dying art," Ron Jensen said. "So many have gone the way of big corporations, mechanization and selling off land. Our farm in Benjamin has been in the family almost 140 years and five generations. I hope to keep it alive in my family for years to come."