Fruit growers in the U.S. Intermountain West (the region including the states of Montana, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado) are faced with several challenges including decreased agricultural land availability, harsh climatic conditions, and significant competition from both domestic production and imports. Overcoming these challenges is important to maintaining the long-term viability of fruit production in the region as well as sustaining land in agricultural use.
Agricultural land in the Intermountain West has steadily declined as populations have expanded. For example, in Utah only 2.3% of the state is devoted to irrigated agriculture (Hutson et al., 2005) and only a small portion of irrigated agriculture is dedicated to fruit production. Utah’s population has grown steadily at an average annual rate of 2.48%. As population has increased, prime fruit-growing acreage has been lost to urban and suburban growth, pushing Utah to become a net importer of most fruits (Ernst et al., 2012).
However, as urban development encroaches on agricultural land, farms are often in close proximity to high population centers, which provide the opportunity for direct-to-consumer sales. The growing “Buy Local” movement has created a market of consumers interested in buying local products at premium prices year-round (Curtis, 2014; Martinez et al., 2010). For example, between 1992 and 2007, local food sales grew three times faster in the Far West and Rocky Mountain regions than in other areas of the United States (Low and Vogel, 2011). Nationally, the number of farmers’ markets increased by 76% between 2008 and 2014 (U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service, 2014). Fruit producers have the opportunity to increase production to meet this demand. Ideally, growers could produce year-round to provide a constant supply to the consumer. However, as a result of climatic challenges, year-round fresh fruit production is often cost-prohibitive and requires use of additional technology.
Climate is a major challenge to fruit production in the Intermountain West, limiting both the type of fruit crops grown and the length of the growing season. Fruit production is limited in many areas of the region as a result of high elevation and arid climate conditions, resulting in late spring and early fall frosts as well as large diurnal temperature fluctuations during spring and fall. Additionally, the region’s arid and semiarid conditions limit water availability. Finding ways to combat these climatic challenges may increase season length, yields, and, hence, profitability for the region’s fruit producers.
Finally, both domestic and import competition limits the financial success of Intermountain West fruit growers as a result of low product pricing, especially during the region’s primary growing season. Other fruit-producing regions of the United States and overseas do not have the climatic challenges Intermountain West growers are faced with; they are able to sell their products at lower wholesale prices. Additionally, the increased ability to ship produce long distances provides a year-round supply of fresh fruits at lower market prices.
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