Farming out ideas
Local partnership seeks solutions to looming farmer shortage

Farming out ideas

Young farmers get their hands dirty at Fort Lewis College's Old Fort at Hesperus. Increasingly, it's harder for aspiring ranchers and farmers to find land, raising questions about local food production./ Photo by Cole Davis, Fort Lewis College

Jonathan Romeo - 04/20/2023

by Jonathan Romeo


America has a looming farmer crisis. Across the country, farmers are aging and approaching retirement. According to a census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65. In just 10 years, that number will jump to more than half of all farmers.

To make matters worse, a number of factors make it challenging for young and aspiring farmers to take their place. The National Young Farmers Coalition, a grassroots advocacy network, says nearly 60% of young farmers cite affordable land as the top barrier in pursuing a career in farming or ranching.

“We’re at this moment now where young people are in crisis in terms of land access,” Holly Rippon-Butler of the National Young Farmers Coalition told NPR in September 2022. “And we need equity to be at the center of that so that we are creating policies that really center young farmers and ranchers of color and lift up our whole next generation of young farmers as a whole.”

The situation is no better in Southwest Colorado, where land prices have shot up, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a massive influx of new residents leaving cities for rural areas. And, even if you can find land, the availability of irrigation water is another hurdle.

Now, however, a partnership between La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Montezuma Land Conservancy and Fort Lewis College’s Old Fort at Hesperus is making a concerted effort to help new and aspiring farmers and ranchers.

“The U.S. as a whole is going through a major transformation with farmers and ranchers starting to age out and retire,” Adrienne Dorsey, executive director of LPOSC, said. “We wanted to come together and figure out how to support more equitable access to land for the next generation.”

Add it up

In June 2022, the partnership received a grant from the nonprofit Land Trust Alliance to conduct a feasibility study on the top barriers young farmers face in Southwest Colorado, along with building a vision for equitable land access and different land use models.

That effort is hosting community meetings throughout La Plata and Montezuma counties to talk to farmers and ranchers. Already, meetings have taken place in Towaoc, Cortez, Mancos, Durango and one next week in Ignacio.

“The intent is to bring community members together to talk about equitable land access, explore what that means to different people and identify barriers that people in the community are facing,” Dorsey said. “And also start talking about possible solutions.”

Though early in the process, it’s not hard to see what challenges farmers face. Land, and especially land with water, is incredibly expensive (and increasingly rare) in Southwest Colorado.

“Young farmers have a hard time getting a foot in the door and accessing land because of the cost,” Molly Mazel, deputy director of Montezuma Land Conservancy, said. “It really makes it harder to access for people without certain means.”

Indeed, whereas the previous generation of farmers either inherited land from family or benefited from lower land prices, young farmers, obviously, do not. Add on the price of equipment, water and training, and it starts to add up.

A cultural shift

But we all need to eat, right? Which means we need to work toward solutions. Mazel said there are other examples across the country that show it is possible, in fact, to support local, young farmers by thinking outside the box and reimagining land ownership.

“Historically, government subsidies have gone to big-mega-mono-crop industrial ag operations,” Mazel said. “It’s hard for farmers to make a living under the way our food system is set up. We’re interested in shared models – that’s something really interesting and a cultural shift as generations change over.”

The Southwest group has involved the Agrarian Trust, a New England organization that supports small farmers. Multiple requests for comment to the Agrarian Trust were not returned for this story, but the group is known for its communal land-ownership model with a focus on sustainable ag.

One model, for instance, would have five different land owners on, say, 5 acres, overseen by a board where every farmer serves on the board. That way, the owners can collectively make decisions on the land while also building equity in their own parcel.

“We’re doing our homework to see what’s possible,” Mazel said. “But we’re also talking to our community to share what we’re learning. No model is perfect. We need to figure out what works best in Southwest Colorado to ensure conservation is long term and viable.”

Living off the land

Despite all the daunting challenges, there are still young people who want to get their hands dirty. Elicia Whittlesey, the farmer training program coordinator at FLC’s Old Fort, said the reasons young people choose farming are varied.

Many are driven to help take part in producing food in a sustainable way to combat climate change. Others believe it’s a way to give back to communities. And some just like working outside and playing in the dirt.

FLC runs an immersive five-month beginner farming program that can train up to 15 people. But once finished, many people don’t have an opportunity to translate their skills into a profession, Whittlesey said.

“What stops people from entering farming is … access to land, water and resources,” she said. “I think a lot about the high land prices in Southwest Colorado affecting people’s interest in farming or their belief it’s a viable profession.”

On Monday, about 30 people attended the Durango community listening session. One of the recurring themes was not having access to land. Even those renting land don’t have equity at the end of it all.

Growing in a new way

With existing farmers aging out, many in the field are questioning the future of local food production.

“We need to try different approaches to change the way historical land ownership has existed,” Dorsey said.

One early benefit of the community listening sessions, Whittlesey said, is that they’re connecting land-owning farmers who would rather pass on their land to next-generation farmers instead of high-priced developments.

“I see other examples in communities across the country where they are securing land for farming and protecting it and taking it out of development,” Whittlesey said. “And farmers have a 99-year lease at a low cost to a community.”

Mazel said the group is optimistic and inspired by some of the models they’ve been researching, and the listening sessions are just the beginning.

“We don’t want the project to end at listening sessions,” she said. “We want to pursue funding to keep the project going and pilot projects we think will work.”