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.”