Profit from thousands of acres of hay may go to fund church
It’s visible in satellite photos from space.
A giant green patch stands out from the surrounding Nevada desert. And the greenery may be an important source of revenue for the church led by fugitive polygamist Warren Jeffs.
Over the past two years, families linked to Jeffs have quietly begun operating a large hay farm in a remote valley 30 miles north of Pioche, Nev. Investigators are trying to figure out if farm equipment, and even buildings, have been illegally moved there from the Utah-Arizona border.
A former insider says he believes the Nevada operation, known as Atlanta Farms, was launched with the approval and direction of Jeffs. “It’s all his doing,” said Sterling Harker.
Until Jeffs ousted him from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), Harker was president of Harker Farms in Beryl, Utah. After he was kicked out, Harker’s close relatives expanded Harker Farms into Nevada. They leased thousands of acres from prominent Las Vegas businessman Harvey Whittemore, and they’ve been operating it as an alfalfa hay farm for about two years.
In satellite photos, the farm shows up as a collection of at least 30 green circles, each covering at least 125 acres. Each is irrigated by a large revolving sprinkler known as a “pivot.” At this time of year, the irrigated fields are invisible under a blanket of snow, but the scale of the operation is still apparent. A huge new building has been put up. Barracks or modular living quarters have been put in place that appear capable of accommodating dozens of workers and family members.
Private investigator Sam Brower says those operating Atlanta Farms are longtime FLDS members who stayed in the group after Jeffs rose to power.
“They’re zealously loyal to Warren Jeffs,” Brower said. He’s been probing the FLDS group for years on behalf of former members who are suing Jeffs.
Brower says more than 3,000 acres of alfalfa hay are under cultivation in Nevada. He won’t specify his evidence, but Brower says he’s learned that much of the money made in Nevada goes to Jeffs’ church. Some probably pays for the new FLDS compound under construction near Eldorado, Texas.
“He needs a large cash flow to support his extravagances, his buildings in Texas, the temple that he’s constructed,” Brower said. “And there is no cash flow in Texas.”
Brower believes the farm operators likely give at least a tithing (10 percent of the profits) to the FLDS Church, if not more. And he also believes they contribute special assessments that Jeffs typically requires from faithful members.
The timing was apparently good for the Harker Farms expansion into Nevada. Hay prices are more than $100 a ton, according to Spencer Hafen, Lincoln County commissioner in the nearby town of Pioche.
“As long as hay stays high,” Hafen said, “they have a real potential to make a lot of money. Into the multimillions, I would dare venture, per year.”
Hafen worries that more polygamists might come and use their cheap labor pool to outbid locals for construction jobs. “If they want to stay out there and farm, that’s one issue,” Hafen said. “But if they want to come in and bring more people, I’ll have a real problem with that.”
Meanwhile, a potential legal issue has arisen. Investigators are trying to figure out if some of the equipment and buildings at Atlanta Farms might have been taken from the FLDS home base in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. “I think there’s a good possibility it has,” Brower said as he scanned the farm with binoculars looking for a missing grain elevator and a potato processing building.
If equipment has been moved from Hildale and Colorado City, the transfers might be illegal. Last year, property, homes and equipment that are part of the FLDS community’s United Effort Plan (UEP) trust were placed under court control.
Court-appointed fiduciary Bruce Wisan says he’s investigating the disappearance of certain items but doesn’t know if any wound up in Nevada.
“We are aware,” Wisan said, “that some equipment that has been taken from the UEP property is, in fact, in other locations controlled by the FLDS. And we’re pursuing that information. And as we determine the facts, we’ll take appropriate action.”
Harker family members who run the Nevada farm refused a request for interviews.