What started as a seemingly harmless effort by the Utah Department of Agriculture to collect information on urban gardeners in the state has turned into a battle-cry for some fearing the state agency is looking to send the government to confiscate their corn.
In 2011 the Utah Department of Agriculture launched its 10,000 gardens challenge. A contest that has offered urban farmers the chance to win a $500 gift certificate to IFA Country Stores by registering their garden with the state. Seth Winterton, deputy director of marketing for UDAF says the idea behind the challenge always was to get a better understanding of the urban gardeners in the state and to perhaps one day have a list that might be helpful for organizing a festival or celebration for farmers in the state.
But the voluntary registration also had another component to it that Winterton could never have guessed would raise the hackles of local gardeners weary of a government-take over of their gardens—an extra box to check allow participants to share information about their garden to the United States Department of Agriculture's five-year food census known as the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Recently Winterton has faced a growing tide of complaints and criticism from folks believing the "10,000 Garden" challenge has all along been a ploy to lure gardeners into registering their patio tomatoes or backyard corn with government to be confiscated at the whim of the federal government.
“Frankly I’ve kind of been mystified ever since this whole conspiracy thing started. I don’t know if I should be offended or should I think that I’ve done well,” Winterton says with a laugh. The conspiracy theories hit a critical mass in recent weeks after a blogger wrote a post about the garden challenge that has since been picked up by a variety of websites such as InfoWars.com that entertain more fringe theories on politics and culture.
In a post entitled “Utah Garden Challenge Actually Government Registration in Disguise” the post warns the registration is just a means of giving the government control over America’s independent food producers.
“While the contest paints a proud face on independent food production, it is important to remember that registering with the government sets up a system to track, tax, permit or confiscate the registered item. Gun ownership is a good example of this scheme,” the post reads.
Winterton has found himself reminding concerned Utahns that the option of sharing the information with the USDA’s five-year census is optional and doesn’t even affect eligibility in the prize drawing. Winterton says on the state level the challenge has always been about coming to terms with urban gardens in the state and having an understanding of Utah’s local agri-culture.
Once a database was created, he says it likely would only be used to help recognize the green thumbs in the state and potentially find ways to encourage local producers to link up with local restaurants and grocers.
“We really do have an agricultural heritage here and we do grow,” Winterton says. “Recognizing that is really where [the garden challenge] is coming from.”