Creating a Strong Future for Young Farmers and Ranchers

With spring’s arrival some of us begin to break out the seed catalogs and dream of our little patch of vegetables or our summer morning visits to our local farmers’ market. As calves, lambs and baby goats remind us that spring has arrived we’re also reminded of how much we depend on and admire the work of our local farmers and ranchers here in the Southwest corner of Colorado. But what does the future hold for young farmers looking for a place to farm and aging landowners who want to see their land continue to provide income for them and keep the land in agricultural use?

A Growing Problem

In Colorado alone there are three times as many young and beginning farmers and ranchers looking for land to farm on than there are landowners looking for someone to partner with according to Guidestone Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to building the capacity of new producers and local food systems.

This kind of challenge is actually not that unusual in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties. Many young and beginning farmers are finding the cost of buying land is too prohibitive. Another big challenge is securing long term leases which give the best chance of producing good crops and improving the soils.

According to American Farmland Trust Over 57% of farmers nationally are 55 or older and likely to retire in the next two decades. Since 2000 over 50,000 acres of agricultural land have been lost to development in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties and population growth will only continue. Montezuma Land Conservancy and our partners are working hard to find ways to keep agricultural lands in production and assisting landowners and beginning farmers in finding ways to carry on this valuable agricultural heritage.

Addressing the Challenge Head On

That’s exactly what a recent workshop hosted by Montezuma Land Conservancy and experts from High Desert Conservation District, The Farm Incubator Program at Old Fort Lewis and Guidestone Colorado sought to address.

The workshop was attended by young farmers and ranchers, those looking to find a place to farm and ranch and elder landowners. The speakers spoke about how to address the challenges facing young farmers with regard to affordable land access, tools available to the farming and ranching community related to matching entering farmers/ranchers and those seeking to retire, and area partnerships available to support these transitions.

Jennifer Visitacion, Executive Director of Guidestone Colorado, discussed a statewide database now available to connect young farmers with landowners. LandLInk is designed to connect beginning farmers and ranchers with other landowners. The service is publicly available for free at http://guidestonecolorado.org/colorado-land-link/

Local Success and Strategies for the Future

Jack Burk a local landowner and board member of the Montezuma Land Conservancy, and Dustin Stein, a young rancher who now farms Mr. Burk’s land, spoke on a panel about how they connected and developed a partnership that benefits both parties.

“For me, as a landowner, I’m able to see my land taken care of in a responsible way and know that I’m helping the next generation of ranchers,” explained Mr. Burk. The partnership keeps the ranch productive, allows the landowner to qualify for agricultural tax assessment (thereby allowing it to be more affordable for ranching), and enables Dustin access to land he otherwise couldn’t afford.

Dustin commented “It took the Burks and I a long time to find each other, but when we did, it was a win-win for both of us. Because of our long term vision, I am extremely motivated to invest my time and energy towards the big picture assets of our ranch: namely soil health and irrigation efficiency. I have no doubt that the work I am doing this year will pay off. Luckily, I will be around in 10-20 years to reap the benefits of all the hard work.”

Montezuma Land Conservancy, High Desert Conservation District, The Farm Incubator Program at Old Fort Lewis and Guidestone Colorado emphasized that they were committed to helping to provide the technical resources for local farmers and ranchers to make partnerships like these successful.

“Conserving the ranch or farm can often make it more affordable, and ensure it’s here for generations,” noted Jon Leibowitz, of the Montezuma Land Conservancy, continuing, “however, that’s only part of the story. We need innovative partnerships and strategies to make farming and ranching viable into the future.” For more information regarding the workshop materials, contact Jon Leibowitz at jon@montezumaland.org

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