Cultivating Optimism

Southwestern Colorado’s Food Future

Scott Mahaffey represents a diminishing demographic; he’s a third-generation farmer in southwestern Colorado’s Montezuma County. Much has changed in agriculture since his father Joe farmed the family land, and then again, much has stayed the same.

Back in Joe’s day, it was common for grown children to take over the family farm and land was affordable. Joe and his two brothers assumed ownership of a 320-acre farm from their father, later expanding to 2,200 acres. They were dryland farmers, producing beans, wheat and hay on unirrigated land.

Scott and Joe Mahaffey. Photo By: Jeremy Wade Shockley

That changed 25 years ago when the Dolores Project, an irrigation initiative including the creation of a reservoir, canal system and pumps, gave the Mahaffey farm access to water. Joe and his brothers divvied up the family land—Joe negotiated a 1,000-acre parcel—and on July 13, 1987, they turned on the spigots. Joe’s yields went from two tons of alfalfa per acre to five tons, 300 pounds of beans per acre to 2,000 pounds.

Today, Scott farms his father’s 1,000-acre parcel, still producing alfalfa, beans and wheat, citing the alfalfa, sold mostly as dairy hay, as the most profitable crop. With irrigation plus conservation farming methods, Scott can more consistently rely on greater yields.

“I rotate my crops according to what that ground needs to stay healthy and produce what it can,” Mahaffey says. “If beans have a high price one year, I can’t just plant a bunch of beans because of the high price. I have to put in the ground what it needs to stay fertile for years and years to come.”

Montezuma County is known for its dryland bean production—a commodity the county has historically, and currently, produced in the top 1 percent nationally. At present, the region’s most profitable export crop is dairy hay, or alfalfa, which is typically exported to farms in Texas. Beef cattle, lambs and hay are also staples of regional farms and ranches.

The Mahaffeys and other like-minded growers may have adopted conservation methods, but according to Judy Garrigues, district manager for the Dolores Conservation District, most commodity crop farmers still use traditional farming methods that are hard on the land. Farmers often rely on
chemical-based fertilizers, instead of crop rotation or cover, to increase the land’s yield, which doesn’t promote the bacterial activity necessary for healthy soil in which plants can truly thrive, says Garrigues. And dated practices, such as fallowing a field without protective crop cover, make the soil susceptible to erosion when high winds rise.

In addition to questions of ecological sustainability, regional leaders are concerned that many family farms, under pressure from development on land and water resources, will simply be lost, or sold off, as the older generation retires.

In November 2011, 60 food producers, buyers, conservation groups and community members gathered for the Southwest Food and Farmland Forum to identify challenges, opportunities and solutions for securing regional agriculture. They determined protection of irrigated agricultural lands, education and support for new farmers, establishment of local food markets, and circumvention of distribution obstacles to be the most pressing goals.

Despite the challenges, an inexplicable optimism permeates southwestern Colorado’s agriculture community. These folks fervently believe in the area’s deep-rooted agricultural history and feel confident in their communities’ interest in local food. They recognize their role as a new generation that must be creative and business-savvy to not only address land and water availability and sustainability, but market and diversify their products; bear the burden of increased production, labor and distribution costs; and contribute to fostering a reliable, local market.

An Emerging Co-op

Perhaps no farm understands how to negotiate the challenges facing small agricultural operations in southwestern Colorado better than the folks at James Ranch in La Plata County.

Dan James tends to afternoon chores in the company of his son, Grady, on the James Ranch 10 miles north of Durango in the Animas River Valley. Photo By: Jeremy Wade Shockley

In the 1960s, Karen and David James moved from California to the Animas River Valley in search of ranchland. With some family help, they were able to acquire 460 acres and enough cattle to get a start. Their timing was good as the area, known for its cattle production, peaked agriculturally in 1975.

But even back then, land in the area was expensive relative to the profits a rancher or farmer could earn. The Animas Valley and surrounding regions boast high mountains, clear rivers and lush valleys attractive not only to agriculturalists but also developers, who benefit from a housing market driven by second-home owners and retirees. The Jameses realized that to become debt-free on their land, they’d have to develop some of it. They scaled back their ranching operation and focused on a 60-acre housing development on the south side of their property.

Fifteen years ago they sold the homes, paid off their land and invested back into ranching. In their second go-round, they decided to use a different model—grassfed beef. According to son Dan James, they were attracted to holistic land management and grazing techniques, still relatively new at the time, because they were less input-dependent and more oriented toward the health of the land. “They were pioneers in the grass-fed movement,” Dan says. “They started selling ground meat out of the back of a pick-up.”

As the Jameses’ grass-fed beef venture grew, their grown children began migrating back to the ranch. Karen and David welcomed them, but also made it clear there were no free rides. “If we wanted to stay,” Dan says, “we each had to have our own enterprise.”

His two sisters returned first, one converting an under-utilized piece of land that Dan calls “a prairie dog town” to a vegetable farm. The other, with her husband, began a tree farm and took charge of the ranch’s egg production. Next, Dan and his wife returned to run a dairy and cheese-making operation; they also raise pork fattened on whey, the cheese’s nutritious byproduct.

The family sells some of their products in farmers’ markets as well as directly from the ranch, where, Dan says, there was always a need for a café. So, when another sister returned, it was natural she start a food cart. On a grass terrace she makes meals for guests to enjoy, using food products from the ranch.

Although it seems like the perfect co-op, five diverse yet complimentary businesses working the same land and sharing costs, it doesn’t just synchronize naturally. Each business has autonomy, yet the land is jointly-owned and decisions are made collectively. The interpersonal relations, Dan explains, are just as important, if not more so, than the individual relationships with the land. The family has invested in the ranch’s “human capital.”

“If you don’t have people on the land that can get along,” says Dan, “it’s all for naught.”

Small but Smart

For agricultural operations in the region to not just survive, but become sustainable, Mike Preston, who oversees operations of the Dolores Project and chairs a regional water supply planning forum called the Southwest Basin Roundtable, believes there must be a give and take between tradition and invention. “Preparing for the future is a combination of watching it and maintaining some continuity among traditional agriculture families that have the knowledge and ability to take care of the land,” he says. “Then you ask how you can create new niches and introduce compatibility.”

Mike Preston oversees operations at the Dolores River’s McPhee Reservoir. Photo courtesy of: Indian Ridge Farm

Commodity farmers like the Mahaffeys represent the tradition Preston speaks of, while creative enterprises like James Ranch represent the invention. Additionally, a host of young, organic growers are sprouting up around the region and creating new niches for locally grown vegetables, poultry and sheep.

Chuck Barry and Rosie Carter, owners of Stone Free Farm in Arriola outside of Cortez, intuited that there was a market for local, organic food 18 years ago. Taking Rosie’s experience working in organic farms on the West Coast, they pioneered the organic, small farm movement in Montezuma County and were instrumental in establishing markets, like the Durango Farmers’ Market, that folks newer to the scene continue to benefit from.

Chuck and Rosie bought the land that is now Stone Free Farm in 1994—a small farmhouse with three acres of irrigated pasture, perfect for growing organic vegetables. The rest, an additional 60 acres, is a mix of pasture, ponds and natural wooded areas on which they raise hay, provide forage for sheep and cattle, and shelter wildlife. The former owners, its original homesteaders, passed down knowledge of the land and its intimate history to the newcomers.

When Stone Free Farm began, they were the only organic vegetable farmers at the local farmers’ market, recalls Rosie, and at first folks winced at the prices. But after people saw the quality of their products and began to understand the cost of production, they returned weekly to buy Stone Free’s carrots and tomatoes, beets and garlic. Today, between the Durango and Cortez farmers’ markets and direct sales to local restaurants, Stone Free Farm easily sells all of its produce. In fact, according to Chuck, they could increase production but are hesitant to take on the additional costs.

Rosie attributes their success to the relationships they’ve formed with their customers and to treating farming like a business. “We are always researching prices, tending to the soil and looking at what we can do better,” she says.

Barclay and Tony Daranyi (below) grow vegetables for 65 families at 7,000 feet in the San Miguel River Valley. Photo Courtesy of: Indian Ridge Farm

Farther north, in San Miguel County, Barclay and Tony Daranyi have cultivated a local market that is not only committed to buying their product, but that literally invests in their farm. The husband/wife duo own 100 acres and from just two of those, they grow enough vegetables to feed 65 families through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Families buy in at the beginning of each year; then, during the harvest from June to October, they either come to the farm or the local farmers’ market to pick up their weekly share.

The Daranyis’ 100-acre farm, Indian Ridge, sits 7,000 feet above sea level and depends entirely on snowmelt from Lone Cone Mountain to the east, which they store in ponds, for water. Their growing season is incredibly short and weather extremely variable. Indian Ridge’s CSA members share some of the farm’s risk by paying for their shares months before production even begins.

The Daranyis further mitigate their risk through diversification, producing eggs, organic chickens and turkeys, as well as goats and beef cattle. Barclay also runs a bakery year-round boasting homemade granola, bread and baked goods. The Daranyis are committed to holistic, conservation farming methods, paying particular attention to soil management. According to Barclay, they “build” their soil by allowing their sheep, cattle and chickens to fertilize the land, rotating a variety of crops through the soil and always using crop cover in areas left unplanted.

Barclay is keenly aware of the obstacles facing farmers like her, yet she remains optimistic about growing food in Norwood and selling it locally. “We live in an agriculturally rich area,” she says. “We know we can grow food here; that is proven. We just have to take care of our soil.”

A Tough Entry

Start-up farmers like the Daranyis and Rosie and Chuck are not alone. In fact, Cindy Dvergsten, a local farmer and agricultural consultant, recently studied Montezuma County’s agricultural outlook for local organizations and found that there had been a 35 percent increase in the number of farms in the county from 2002 to 2007. But the average size of individual farms had decreased along with the total acreage dedicated to farming and ranching. This trend mirrors that of the nation; the USDA reported 18,467 more small farms in 2007 than 2002.

In a region concerned with handing down its agricultural tradition, the growth in the number of farmers is an encouraging sign. Still, with the average age of the American farmer pegged at 55 years or older, the country—and the state—is at a pivotal juncture. According to Jane Ellen Hamilton, a land trust attorney and prominent leader in the Southwest Food and Farmland Forum, Colorado has lost 13 percent of its agricultural land since 1980 and the USDA shows agricultural lands here diminishing at a rate of 30,000 acres per year. Often when land is taken out of agricultural production, the water rights attached to that land are transferred for municipal or industrial use, notes Hamilton.

Regional leaders are concerned that irrigation water stay with the land when it changes hands. But that necessitates a successful transition from one farmer to another. In parts of the region, such as the Pagosa Springs—Bayfied—Durango corridor, due to the area’s recreational appeal, land is unaffordable for new farmers, and older farmers may opt to sell to developers to ensure their retirement.

The expense of land and water, combined with start-up infrastructure investments, makes it hard for new farmers to get into the industry. After spending four years working as an intern on farms across the west, Jon Clayshulte wanted to start his own operation, but he didn’t have ties to family land or capital to invest. “Finding land is a major problem,” Clayshulte says. “I hear about it from everyone I’ve ever interned with. After interning you want to figure out how to keep farming, but it’s not easy, that’s for sure.”

Jon Clayshulte’s High Valley Growers farms the Mancos Valley. Photo By: Jeremy Wade Shockley

Clayshulte tapped resources like Land Link, a program that works to match older farmers who want to retire with younger farmers seeking land. But it was actually on Craigslist where Clayshulte found his opportunity— a three-year lease on 35 acres, of which Clayshulte says 20 are suitable for planting, and a four-bedroom farmhouse in the Mancos Valley.

Although the historically farmed land hadn’t been cared for in several years, Clayshulte was encouraged because it had access to Mancos River ditch water in addition to 24 acre feet of water from the nearby Jackson Reservoir. Additionally, the landowner was investing $20,000 in the irrigation system.

Because of the implications related to leasing farmland versus owning it, Clayshulte and his four partners intentionally named their business High Valley Growers instead of High Valley Farm. They believe the word “farm” implies a long-term connection to a specific piece of land that “growers” does not. “Our business is different. It’s half land and half business,” Clayshulte says. “We can still take our reputation and our customers if we can’t renew our lease or get kicked off the land.”

High Valley Growers, who planted their first fields in fall 2011, remain optimistic about farming in the region. They plan on selling in area farmers’ markets as well as directly to restaurants. Citing a 2008 study conducted by the Journal of Extension, Clayshulte says, “Colorado has the capacity to provide itself with over 70 percent of its own food, and currently only 2 percent is bought locally.”

Dreaming of the potential, Clayshulte adds, “Even if we [Colorado] jump up to 10 percent, that’s huge.”

Delivering the Goods

To make the leap Clayshulte hopes for, the region will have to overcome another major hurdle—distribution. The biggest city in the region is Durango with a population of just under 17,000. Other small towns in the area are separated by rugged terrain, making distribution and processing time-consuming and costly.

Meat producers face particularly difficult challenges because they have to travel far distances for processing—to Delta, Colo., or Monticello, Utah. Because of the area’s inability to process, refrigerate, package and store the meat, most send their cattle to feedlots elsewhere to finish them for market.

The Southwest Food and Farmland Forum recognized this problem and identified developing local food markets, coordinating distribution, establishing a regional farm service center with processing and other value-added functions, and creating food hubs as key goals.

Some efforts toward those ends, such as those of Krista Garand, supervisor of student nutrition for the Durango School District, are already underway. Garand is working to make an institutional market, like that of the school district, accessible to farmers. The advantages are twofold: the initiative opens up a larger scale market to small, local farmers while providing healthy food for youth.

“As long as there is a demand for local food, there will be opportunities to produce it.” – Cindy Dvergsten

Garand, also a member of the Farm to School State Task Force, knows the school buying process can pose a real challenge for farmers. School districts place their food orders months ahead of time by bidding them out. After hosting a series of conferences to guide farmers through the complicated bid process, Garand received bids from 13 local farmers for the 2011-2012 school year. Garand reports spending 6 percent of her budget for the year, or $40,000, on local food including beef. With more farmers aware of the bidding process, she hopes to see that percentage increase each year.

In many ways, the area’s farmers are creating a macrocosm of the James Ranch model, discussing possibilities such as forming co-ops, sharing labor and infrastructure costs, and creating food storage facilities. And just as importantly, through using old markets, developing new ones and launching educational initiatives, the region continues to develop a strong, local demand for regional products.

But the fact remains: locally grown food is more expensive than mass-produced, imported food. To be successful, farmers will need a local clientele willing to pay for their products.

According to Dvergsten, in 1920 the average person spent more than 20 percent of their income on food, much of it locally grown and processed, while today the average person spends less than 10 percent and that food is typically imported from great distances. Dvergsten, along with other local farmers, is trying to change the paradigm. And like the rest of them, she remains optimistic, because in southwestern Colorado the demand for locally grown food is currently on the rise.

“As long as there is a demand for local food,” Dvergsten says, “there will be opportunities to produce it.”

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