Gunther Ott is part of America’s next generation of farmers and ranchers. He is the first of the third generation to continue the agricultural stewardship of the James Ranch.
Ott, 24, manages Whey-Good Pork and irrigates the land on his family’s Animas Valley ranch.
He took a three-year gap period after high school, during which he worked on a ranch in Montana, a vineyard in Germany and joined the National Guard.
In 2015, Ott said it was time to return home.
“I’ve always wanted to come back and work on the farm,” he said. “There are benefits and disadvantages to working on the ranch. You don’t get much vacation time, and you don’t have set hours. But the benefits are everything around you. You produce something from nothing every year. It is a beautiful finished product.”
Kate Greenberg with the National Young Farmers Coalition said the average age for a Colorado farmer is almost 59, compared with the national average age of 58.3.
Similarly, farmers older than 65 outnumber farmers younger than 35 by 6-to-1.
“Farmers are aging, and we don’t have enough young people coming in to fill the gap,” she said. “We expect two-thirds of farmland to change hands in the next 20 years.”
The National Young Farmers Coalition is the only national advocacy organization focused on the needs of young and beginning farmers and ranchers.
“Young” farmers include all people who are kicking off a career in agriculture, typically in their first 10 years of growing. They could be a first-year farm apprentice or someone pursuing a mid-life career change to agriculture.
The coalition has 37 chapters in 26 states, including four in Colorado.
Greenberg, the Western program director for the coalition, has dedicated her time to supporting, mobilizing and engaging young farmers to ensure their success.
However, there is a noticeable decline in people pursuing careers in agriculture.
“If you are a retiring farmer, you can’t always expect your kids to take over anymore,” Greenberg said. “There are young farmers who want to take over but can’t afford the land and equipment to get started.”
Greenberg was one of the driving forces behind the state’s first-ever interim study committee on farmers and their struggles.
“The issue of who will take over the next generation of agriculture is very urgent, and the creation of the committee was one step toward recognizing that,” she said.
Created with the help of state Sen. Kerry Donovan, the committee is tasked with studying how state and local policies can better assist aspiring farmers and ranchers.
The committee first met Aug. 10 and proposed six bills for drafting. The final versions will be voted on at the Oct. 6 hearing.
“We are looking toward the 2018 legislative season to see what kind of policy might come out of this process that will support young and beginning farmers across the state,” Greenberg said.
She said the committee surveyed farmers and ranchers across the country, and access to land and capital are the main barriers they face.
Alex Funk, the Southwest policy analyst for the National Young Farmers Coalition, said access to affordable land affects farmers young and old.
“You cannot launch a career without the land,” he said. “New farmers have a tough time accessing credit, and it is hard to get a loan to purchase land. Many young farmers are doing it from scratch, and they are relying on sketchy lease agreements to piece things together.”
One of the committee’s proposed bills would add agriculture to the Innovative Industries internship program in Colorado.
The program helps employers in an innovative industry with internship costs. It funds up to $5,000 per intern for an intern with a minimum of 130 training hours completed in six months.
“A top barrier for existing landowners is the cost of bringing on somebody to help,” Greenberg said.
“One bill would add agriculture to that existing program, and one would create a new program. The state would provide grants to existing landowners to train young and beginning farmers and ranchers.”
The program would give existing farmers and ranchers more options for looking outside their families for young, eligible agriculturists to take over when they retire.
Ott said the learning curve is one of the hardest parts of being a new farmer.
“I have the land so I don’t have to worry about investing in that, but I do take care of the pigs on the ranch, and starting out it is such a complex job,” he said. “There are a ton of little things you need to know. I made a lot of mistakes at first because there is no rigid structure, and you never know what to expect year to year.”
Another bill would create a beginning farmers and ranchers center at Colorado State University to coordinate statewide education programs.
“It would be a hub for farmers in Colorado to access a multitude of resources that they would need to have successful farming careers such as technical services, online resources and funding opportunities,” Greenberg said.
The National Young Farmers Coalition is also working across the West to protect water for agriculture, and promote good stewardship of that water.
“Being out West, water is a huge deal,” Greenberg said. “We are making sure farmers have the financial resources to build soil health and practice water conservation on their farms.”
Funk said the committee is a good start to addressing the issues, but no single piece of legislation will be a fix-all.
“This is the first opportunity the state has taken to have this conversation on how things are going,” he said.
“It is a good first step in terms of thinking about how complex this issue is. This is a good way to get the ball rolling.”