The Rocky Mountain West is not an agriculture region anymore.
The myth – perpetuated by generations of farmers, the media and state legislatures dominated by agricultural representatives – is that growing food and ag commodities is the backbone of our economy. But an impressive and comprehensive study of the region reports that agriculture counts for just 1 percent of it and the number of people who own or work on farms is just 2 percent of the population, down from 35 percent at its peak in 1920.
Colorado College’s 2010 State of the Rockies report, now in its eighth year of research and reporting on issues that define our lives in the mountain west, is focused on agriculture. The report provides the statistical overview of the region’s industry, but also delves deep into agricultural history, land and water use, demographics, production, finance, organization, and a “foodprint” of Rockies’ agriculture, according to project leaders.
States defined as part of the Rockies are Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Idaho.
The average age of farm operators in the U.S. has increased from 52 to 57 years old, and only between 1 and 6 percent earn all their income from farming. In the Rockies, female farmers have increased by 257 percent. Ethnic diversity among farm owners and operators is also trending upward.
Other highlights from the report:
- The Rockies contain only 7 percent of the nation’s family farms.
- Continuing competition from corporate farms which produce huge crops to sell at lower prices, still threatens smaller operations. Just 4 percent of farms are responsible for 45 percent of sales.
- Organic crops, now counted as a separate and distinct category in the report, are grown on 678,000 acres, with another 37,000 being converted to organic.
- Rocky Mountain sales of livestock are higher than average, while sales of soybeans and corn are lower than average. Farmers are concerned with the futures and commodities markets and increased investment activity, which drives food prices up.
- Stressors to farmers also include bank failures, difficulty in getting loans from federal agencies, increases in property taxes, and rising costs of feed, fuel and contract labor.
The president of the National Farmers Union is quoted in the report: “Without a properly functioning and regulated futures market, a train wreck is headed straight for rural America that will jeopardize our ability to continue providing a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for this nation.”