Church welfare farms, ranches expect rich harvest to help with coronavirus pandemic

As a seasoned agriculturalist, Wade Sperry can count off several traditional indicators signaling a bumper harvest this year at Church welfare farms, orchards and ranches: Abundant water. Crop-friendly weather. Skilled management. Ample volunteer labor. 

But Sperry’s also a devout Latter-day Saint. So he simultaneously acknowledges divine influence as nutrient-rich food is being produced on Church-owned properties that will soon be feeding families in need during a devastating global health crisis.

“Things haven’t really been dramatically impacted by the pandemic on the Church welfare farms,” said Sperry, who helps manage the Church’s welfare agricultural projects around the world.

That’s welcome news for stake presidents, bishops, ward Relief Society presidents and, of course, many people left food-vulnerable by COVID-19.

Even in non-pandemic times, weather is typically a farmer or rancher’s kindest friend or most feared adversary. Too little or too much rain or snow can devastate a crop and diminish ranch operations. Harvests can be sabotaged by late-season frosts or extended periods of bone-dry heat.

Weatherwise, 2020 is proving to be “a good year” for Church-owned welfare farms and ranches, said Sperry.

A combine harvests wheat at a Church-owned welfare farm in Geraldine, Montana, in 2018. The ongoing coronavirus has little impact on operations on Church wheat farms.
A combine harvests wheat at a Church-owned welfare farm in Geraldine, Montana, in 2018. The ongoing coronavirus has little impact on operations on Church wheat farms. Credit: Jason Swensen

“There’s been a lot of water and good snowpack — and, so far, we haven’t had any really cold temperatures that can hurt blossoms at the orchards. We’ve had rain come at the right time for the wheat that’s coming up in the spring, and it’s allowing us to put fertilizer on the ground where it needs to be.”

Timely combinations of rainfall and sunshine, he added, reveal that “the Lord is blessing us with an exceptional year.”

Crops to meet pandemic-era demands; volunteers respond

The coronavirus arrived early in the year in the Western Hemisphere, allowing Church farm managers to make well-informed decisions on which products to grow during the pandemic.

“We were able to adjust our plantings on the welfare farms so that we could produce higher amounts of green beans and sweet corn and dry beans this year in anticipation of higher demands at the Bishops’ Storehouse and for our donated products at food banks.”

Volunteers have long been the lifeblood of several Church welfare projects such as the fruit orchards in North Ogden, Utah, and Caldwell, Idaho. That hasn’t changed at a global moment defined by social distancing.

Sister Chris Williams, a Church service missionary, picks peaches at the North Ogden Peach Orchard in Ogden, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
Sister Chris Williams, a Church service missionary, picks peaches at the North Ogden Peach Orchard in Ogden, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. Credit: Hans Koepsell

“The members of the Church and others understand that, even during the pandemic, if the work doesn’t get done in the right way, the crops go to waste,” said Sperry. “So we’ve had a good response from members that have assignments through their stakes or have learned about work that needs to be done through Church websites such as JustServe.org.”

Before getting to work, orchard volunteers are trained on proper social distancing practices. Crowding isn’t much of an issue because the fruit trees are generally spaced more than six feet apart, so workers are naturally separated. 

Volunteers are also answering calls to repair fence lines and ditches on Church welfare cattle ranches that typically suffer damage during the winter. Again, adequate spacing is the norm.

“It’s been impressive to see how people have stepped up,” said Sperry.

Meanwhile, Church welfare operations on wheat and alfalfa farms rely mostly on large tractors and combines during the early growing season, so volunteer needs there are limited.

Managers, missionaries answering calls to serve

Senior missionary couples with farming or ranching backgrounds are often called to serve on Church welfare agricultural projects. But some senior missionaries with compromised immune systems are opting to wait until the weather warms to return to their assignments. Others continue their day-to-day duties while working alone on tractors or four-wheelers.

“And we’ve had a few more young service missionaries come to the welfare farms, including some who have recently come home early from their full-time missions,” said Sperry. 

The welfare farms are not able to accept every young missionary who would like to serve, but elders and sisters with agricultural experience are often welcome additions. “They don’t need much supervision — you can give them an assignment, and they just go do it.”

Sperry said the ongoing pandemic has only increased his appreciation for the Church’s farm and ranch managers. They perform a largely unseen yet essential service.

Farmer inspects wheat kernals at Church welfare wheat farm in Geraldine, Montana.
Farmer inspects wheat kernals at Church welfare wheat farm in Geraldine, Montana. Credit: Jason Swensen

“Starting around March, our managers are putting in 12- to 14-hour days until after the harvest in the fall. And they love it. If it’s a farm, the managers are working six days a week, and on Sunday they’re keeping a close eye on irrigation pivots to make sure they are not breaking down.”

Meanwhile, managers work seven days at week at locations such as at the Church’s poultry farm near Moroni, Utah, or its cattle ranch in Taylor, Arizona, to keep turkeys and cattle there fed and healthy.

“We’ve had an excellent calf crop so far with a lower-than-average death loss. And there’s plenty of grass for the mother cows,” said Sperry.

Accounts of dairy farmers in the United States dumping excess milk during the pandemic have snagged recent national headlines. But excess milk provided to the Church’s dairy plant at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City is being used, in part, to make cheese, powdered milk and other dairy products with longer shelf lives for distribution at bishop storehouses and food banks.

Pure religion in action

As Sperry witnesses agricultural operations churn through the ongoing health crisis, his thoughts often turn to the inspired foresight of welfare-minded Church leaders such as Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, Thomas S. Monson and Glen L. Rudd. 

Turkeys raised at Church-owned poultry farm near Moroni, Utah, are used to feed people in need through the Church's welfare program. The poultry operation has not been affected by ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Turkeys raised at Church-owned poultry farm near Moroni, Utah, are used to feed people in need through the Church’s welfare program. The poultry operation has not been affected by ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Jason Swensen

Each of those men have passed away — but their devotion to “pure religion” (James 1: 27) and the Church’s welfare program continues to feed and lift others.

“They were the pioneers of the welfare program. They were inspired to set this up as a way of taking care of people. … What we’re doing was inspired and implemented through prophets.”

In recent weeks, Latter-day Saints and many others have answered President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to join in a pair of worldwide fasts, petitioning the Lord to blunt the destruction of COVID-19. 

Sperry is certain those unified fasts will ease the well-publicized pressures of the disease. But he’s equally sure the largely unseen harvests on Church welfare farms, orchards and ranches are also gifts from heaven happening in real time.

The Lord’s blessings, he added, are providing for “needs that are going to come.”