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Two Americas: Building a community off the grid in Utah's West Desert

Posted at 3:12 PM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 17:44:48-04

Utah's West Desert is one of the most remote areas of the western United States, but it gets a bad rap because its most famous spot is a giant stretch of hard salted ground that has become the Mecca for setting land speed records.

The famed Bonneville Salt Flats are an aberration, one facet of a landscape defined by mountain ranges surrounding valleys with vegetation, wildlife and human settlements.

Ibapah Peak, in the Deep Creek range, is higher than any mountain in the Wasatch, and Notch Peak in the House Range boasts a 2,200-foot vertical cliff, the second highest in the United States after Yosemite's El Capitan.

All that is to say the West Desert is full of surprises, including a farmstead community growing rapidly in a valley settled between peaks in the relatively diminutive Simpson Mountains.

Riverbed Ranch is really a collection of farms and ranches on property owned by a non-profit collective called Utah OSR.

Somewhere around a dozen two-acre properties are already taking shape with small farming operations while somewhere north of eighty of the plots have been sold. Their ultimate plan is to sell 250 units occupied by people who have signed on to a vision.

Read - Utah seeks to preserve farmland from the demands of development

Coleen Gleason talked about some of the expectations at Riverbed Ranch as she sat and squinted in the sun on a cool October Saturday.

"They agree to build a barn and an orchard and a greenhouse and a home up to building codes," Gleason said.

The sociable retired English Teacher is a matriarch for the small community. She's married to the founder, Phil Gleason, and the two have lived on their property for a year. The initials in Utah OSR stand for Operation Self Reliance. Coleen describes the residents she's met living here for a year.

"They either love farming, or they love animals. Most of them tend to be prepper types," She said.

A simple definition of a prepper is a person who wants to be prepared. But there's nothing simple about the swath of people the word embraces. One prepper might isolate, dig a bunker and stockpile weapons. One might try to form a communal gardening oasis in a city.

Utah OSR's brand of prepping is ultra-organized but not overtly militant. They committed to sustainable, organic practices, but they don't resemble more traditional environmental groups.

They advertise to all creeds, races and ethnicities. But they acknowledge about 80 percent of the community in Utah is composed of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Preparedness and self-reliance are familiar words for Latter-day Saints, who are to keep extra food and other supplies stored for emergencies of all kinds.

Michael and Sarah Vezzani have lived on their two acres for over a year. They are both BYU Graduates, both Latter-day Saints, and both were successful professionals when they decided to leave the city behind and stake a claim as part of the Utah OSR community at Riverbed Ranch.

Michael is a tan and fit 36-year-old with more hair in his beard than on top of his head, which is covered with a well-worn cowboy hat.

"Myself my wife and my three kids. It gets tight in there some days and I feel like pulling out what remaining hair I have," Michael said, laughing.

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He calls their first year an experimenting time, where they plan to fail a lot while learning what can grow. He wakes up early and does software development to make money while getting the farm running. They operate on solar power with a satellite internet connection.

But Michael's dream has been farming since he first picked up a book by the poet and essayist Wendell Berry.

Sarah tells the story of a day just a week or so into their marriage.

"He started reading Wendell Berry and said, I want to be a farmer. I said that's cute, but I'm making the money!" she said.

Sarah was already working as a chemical engineer in Boston while Michael finished his degree online. Jobs took them to Boston and Cincinnati before returning to Utah. At each stop, they gardened together and bemoaned their lack of time outdoors with their three children.

Sarah became a believer in the farming idea. After injuries sustained in a car crash, she put the chemical engineering career on hold and started studying herbal healing while teaching the kids at home.

"I thought I want to live real. I want to live purpose and intention," Sarah said.

They started looking for their farm.

"We looked at property we could afford in Box Elder County. It was miles from anyone and had no water," Michael said.

"We looked at property in Rich County with plenty of water for a million dollars or more. We weren't going to take out that kind of loan," he added.

Then they heard about Utah OSR and started researching what is possible on small plots of land. Michael came away optimistic.

"The question isn't, 'Can you get by on two acres?' I think the better question to ask is 'What do you need to get by?'" Michael said.

They put down their 25 thousand dollars, chose their two acres, moved their family of five into a mid-sized travel trailer, and into a new way of life in Utah's West Desert.