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When Sharill and Jim Hawkins left downtown Denver 12 years ago, they came west looking for the “real Colorado.” “More in the mountains,” Sharill says. “And I wanted space for gardens and animals.” They bought an old farm-turned-residence on the road to a little ski area above Glenwood Springs and converted it into Four Mile Creek Bed-and-Breakfast. Its 90-year-old bright red barn hosts cowboy movies and concerts now. The pens have been home to llamas and goats. The 5 1/2 acres sprout currants, strawberries and raspberries. An herb garden has produced enough to sell at the downtown farmer’s market, but most of what they raise they keep for guests. In many ways, they are the new face of the rural West. According to a recent Census of Agriculture released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Western farms, like those across the country, are actually on the increase, but the size of the farms is shrinking, and farmland is dwindling. The story of farming in the country, and in the West, has become a tale of two farmers. Countering the growth of small farms is a concentration of more and more agriculture in the hands of fewer and fewer mega-farms. The small farms serve a growing niche of farmer’s markets. The giant farms fill the supermarket. The middle is disappearing.

Across the West, More Farms, Less Land, and a Widening Divide

When Sharill and Jim Hawkins left downtown Denver 12 years ago, they came west looking for the “real Colorado.”

“More in the mountains,” Sharill says. “And I wanted space for gardens and animals.”

They bought an old farm-turned-residence on the road to a little ski area above Glenwood Springs and converted it into Four Mile Creek Bed-and-Breakfast. Its 90-year-old bright red barn hosts cowboy movies and concerts now. The pens have been home to llamas and goats. The 5 1/2 acres sprout currants, strawberries and raspberries. An herb garden has produced enough to sell at the downtown farmer’s market, but most of what they raise they keep for guests.

In many ways, they are the new face of the rural West. According to a recent Census of Agriculture released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Western farms, like those across the country, are actually on the increase, but the size of the farms is shrinking, and farmland is dwindling.

The story of farming in the country, and in the West, has become a tale of two farmers. Countering the growth of small farms is a concentration of more and more agriculture in the hands of fewer and fewer mega-farms. The small farms serve a growing niche of farmer’s markets. The giant farms fill the supermarket. The middle is disappearing.

“We see that as deeply problematic for the future of family farm agriculture,” says Brian Depew, rural organizing and outreach program director for the Center for Rural Affairs, in Lyons, Neb.

Seven Rocky Mountain states lost nearly 5 million acres of agricultural land between 2002 and 2007, according to the 2007 census released last month, but they saw their number of farms rise by 19 percent. In Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Idaho, nearly half the farms are under 50 acres — what many Westerners would call a hobby farm. Many are only a few acres.

Just 125,000 farms produced 75 percent of the nation’s produce, down from 144,000 five years earlier. Very large farms, with over $500,000 in annual sales, made up just 5 percent of all the farms in the country but over half the sales. Those farms grew by 46,000 since 2002.

In Montana, a shrinking number of giant farms snatched up more farmland. These massive farms, each over 1,000 acres, dropped slightly to 9,791, but the land they dominated grew to over 57 million acres. With so many massive spreads, the average farm in Montana was 2,139 acres. In Wyoming, it was 3,651.

That scale makes it hard for newcomers, who couldn’t hope to afford 2,000 acres, to compete. Meanwhile, farmers are aging. Those in the West average between 57 and 59 years old. Most earn the bulk of their income outside the farm.

“There are opportunities for these small farms serving niche markets,” Depew says, “but there’s not an opportunity for the future of rural American in the continued demise of midsized family farm agriculture.”

Advocates of small farms see some promise in the numbers. Alongside the growth of small farms is a boom in agricultural products sold directly to the consumer, like homemade cheese or grass-fed beef that customers buy straight from the farm or at farmer’s markets. It’s the kind of niche market they see as offering hope to family farmers who otherwise would have trouble competing in an industry dominated by corporations. Niche produce is low in volume, but it can fetch high prices.

“There seems to be this growing interest in a regionally-based food system,” says Jennifer Dempsey, director of the Farmland Information Center, “a less concentrated food system, and for consumers to have a more direct connection with producers.”

Farms selling directly to consumers grew 17 percent, and sales rose about 29 percent, adjusted for inflation. The numbers aren’t high. They account for less than half a percent of the nation’s agriculture, Dempsey says, but those sales tend to keep the money in the community.

Size matters, though. In Arizona, the number of farms more than doubled, but the average size dropped by half. Farms under 10 acres made up over two-thirds of all the farms in the state. While the number of Colorado farms grew 18 percent, their size fell 14 percent. Nearly two-thirds of new farms were under 50 acres.

“They’re hobby farms,” says Dennis Davidson, district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service serving Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties, a region of Western Slope resorts, ranches and natural gas fields stretching from the Continental Divide to the Utah line.

At a recent workshop for small farmers, about 160 people packed the room, three times what organizers expected. Many owned just a few acres, more interested in growing food for themselves than selling it.

“I do think there’s something encouraging in that, where there are more people learning where their food is coming from and the role agriculture plays in their lives,” says Christi Lightcap, spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department.

Sharill Hawkins, the B&B owner, says she sees a resurgence in interest in local produce. Even the local garden club’s membership is swelling with people interested in growing their own food, she says, and interest in the Glenwood farmer’s market she helps organize has surged.

“I think it’s a great trend,” she says.

Despite its spreading ranchland, though, surrounding Garfield County isn’t as agricultural as it might seem. A state Department of Labor report last year found agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing combined accounted for just 190 county employees. A 2001 report found agriculture trailed well behind tourism, construction, government jobs, even investment income among the county’s economic drivers.

“You gotta dig just a little bit to see that agriculture is alive and well,” says Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, who owns a fruit orchard just over the county line near Cedaredge. “I wish it was bigger. I wish it was more.”

The same is true across the West. Family farm supporters worry the boom in small farms can’t make up for the loss of midsized farms throughout the region, and across the country.

“Ultimately,” Depew says, “a bifurcated system is not a sustainable system.”

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10 comments

  1. You guys need to stop whining and spinning about the nation running out of farmland. Contrary to your article, national farmland and agricultural productivity is not under threat. Research shows that only 26 percent of the decline in cropland can be attributed to urbanization. Structural changes in the agricultural industry, including declining profitability and shifting demand for agricultural products, accounts for the remainder. Cropland, land used to produced food, has remained stable even as the amount of land in farms has declined. Agricultural productivity is at an all time high. The nation exports about 46 percent of its domestically produced rice, about 41 percent of its wheat, about 36 percent of its cotton, about 33 percent of its soybeans, and about 16 percent of its corn for grain. In addition, tax payers are paying some farmers not to plant their cropland in order to maintain price levels. Most farmland conversion is to nonurban uses such as forests, pasture , range land, and recreational uses.
    As for the locavore movement, it focuses myopically on what’s good in one’s back yard and ignores the rest of the world. The locavore idea ignores the fact that someone else’s backyard might be more needy than our own. If the first goal of buying local produce is to help a farmer in need, it would stand to reason that locavores should seek out the neediest farmers they can. If the did, they would not find them in an incredibly wealthy nation like ours. The profits a farmer in a developing country earns from selling his wares in America even if its as little as two cents will go further toward helping that farmer combat poverty than those profits would for a local farmer. A decision to buy locally produced food is a decision not to buy food from countries that are significantly worse off than our own.

  2. Thank the enviros who have run the small operator off the land. They don’t want him “wasting” his water on crops and if raises livestock they want to be sure he doesn’t lease public land and use predators and anything else to force him off. This is the result…..enjoy the fruits of your labors!

  3. Lot of angry, under-informed responses. Sustainable practices do not preclude small farms. The locavore movement does not prevent food from being shipped out to other countries, and, sorry, but we need to help our own communities economy before we can really benefit anyone else. “A decision to buy locally produced food is a decision not to buy food from countries that are significantly worse off than our own.” isn’t true. Local first has a number of benefits. Freshly harvested foods have more nutrition than those that ripen in transit, or in a dark warehouse, so local benefits their community 2 ways, economically and nutritionally. Why should I want to benefit an importer who only wants my money, and doesn’t care what the costs are?

    Local first, for your health, for your community’s health, and for your local economy. It also helps food security. And, why support foods that I feel are inferior? I know where most of my food comes from, the farmer, the dairy, and the bakery are local and open with answers for my questions. Maybe those complaining should take a closer look at their food and it’s qualities, or lack thereof.

  4. A true believer, obviously, but a lot of your beliefs are faith based, not fact based. There is little evidence that on average locally grown food is “superior” or more nutritious than imported food. Additionally, there is a lot of good old fashioned make the world go away, elitist, protectionism involved in the locavore movement.

  5. Mickey,
    Sorry, but there is plenty of evidence. Google can be your friend, but to make an easy point; If you stop feeding something, does it continue to improve? Try not watering your plants, do they continue to thrive? Any life form that loses it’s source of nutrition, quits developing at the same level. No food that ripens in a warehouse, or in transit, can be as nutritious as one that received it’s food all the time until it is harvested ripe. Foods that are to be transported and/or stored while waiting to be delivered to the consumer, are harvested before they are ripe, so they don’t start rotting before the delivery. Maybe you’d like to contact OSU’s dept of ag, and listen to what they say.

    Are you saying people arfe wrong minded to want to be able to provide enough food t feed their community? Food security is not protectionism, it’s more like common sense. And, during this ‘economic crisis’, why would you want to send your money away, where it won’t benefit you or your community? Do you hate your neighbors and/or local growers?

  6. The other thing to consider is the amount of fuel that it takes to move that food around.

  7. The amount of land planted to crops has remained stable by planting marginal land, eliminating the conservation reserve and wildlife habitat needed to maintain a stable ecosystem, while prime farm land gets converted to suburban housing developments. This is not healthy, or sustainable.

    Deriding small farms as “hobby farms”, though, is not entirely accurate – by intensive growing methods, and direct marketing to consumers, a substantial income can be realized from a small piece of land. A little more land makes it a lot easier, however.

  8. Mickey-
    It seems your arguments are based in some very personal feelings, but the fact is that the locavore movement is growing for many reasons, including the reviving interest in knowing where your food is coming from, the desire to reduce the use of fossil fuels used to transport the food, and a desire to connect with community members who are doing the same thing. There are many environmental and societal benefits to be had, and a numbers of CSA’s or local gardeners also donate excess food to lower-income people in their communties. It’s unfortunate you can’t see the benefits in that.

  9. Sunshyn, maybe you’re not old enough to realize it but the locavore movement is not a new phenomena. Since the beginning of the republic there have been farmers’ markets selling local produce and other food products and there probably always will be. Additionally anybody that wishes can grow their own food in their back yard, on their window sills, and on their roof tops which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. What I object to, is the Idea that we should throw up protectionist barriers that favor local food production over food produced outside the local area and the idea that we are running out of farmland, and that we need more restrictive zoning to prevent farmland loss.

  10. I’m curious, where did Sunshine say that the locavore/local food movement was a new movement?

    There are no protectionist barriers in the local food movement that I’ve seen. I have seen people trying to stimulate local economies, and wanting healthier, more nutritious food for their families and friends. Why should we encourage more waste by buying less nutritious food from other countries?