IGNACIO – Farmers, ranchers and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said younger generations face big barriers in joining Colorado’s agriculture industry at the 100th La Plata County Farm Bureau annual meeting.
Greenberg, House Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and local leaders laid out the main issues and opportunities for the agriculture industry in Colorado during the Friday meeting at the Sky Ute Casino. They discussed water – a long-lasting concern for agriculture in the West – commodity prices, population trends, weather and trade. Many attendees mentioned one concern: the lack of young people in an aging workforce.
“There’s so much struggle that farmers just inherently navigate each day,” Greenberg said before the event. “When you think about what you can pass on – your legacy, your business, your pride, your stewardship, etc. – to be able to pass that on to the next generation, it’s hopeful.”
Greenberg spoke after McLachlan, who thanked the agricultural community for the hard work they do. She assured the audience that she eats real meat – a reference to the alternative meat industry debate stirred up by Gov. Jared Polis in August.
“It’s often a thankless job, and I want to thank you very much,” she said. “I hope I never, ever do anything to harm the agricultural industry in Colorado.”
Will Witt, a social media personality for PragerU, also spoke and premiered an agriculture-focused, person-on-the-street video at the event.
Nationally, the average age of farmers and ranchers is 57.5, and the average age of La Plata County farm operators was between 57 and 57.9, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture Highlights.
Greenberg emphasized supporting high-value crops and diverse market opportunities, facilitating soil, water and climate stewardship and supporting future farmers in her speech. She said the main barriers are access to affordable land for first-generation farmers and ranchers and the cost of passing land to the next generation for multigenerational families in the industry.
“There’s still these big underlying structural issues where our marketplace isn’t set up for a young person to get into ag,” she said.
Mark Williams and his son, Tyrell, worried that development around Durango and growing industries, like the hemp industry, will drive up land prices.
“There’s no way I can afford $20,000 an acre. It’s impossible,” Tyrell Williams said, giving an estimate for when he could no longer afford the acreage he would need to stay in production. “It’s a huge concern for me.”
Steve and Peggy Rieke, a couple with a ranch based near Ignacio, shared the same concern.
“We have a son that’s totally eager to get into agriculture,” Steve Rieke said.
“And he says he doesn’t know how he can make it with the prices like they are,” Peggy Rieke said.
J. Paul Brown, former state representative, said the state needed to protect the agricultural status of land to keep leasing options open for farmers and ranchers in need of affordable options. J. Paul and Debbie Brown received the La Plata County Farm Bureau Lifetime Achievement Award at the meeting.
Charly Minkler, who was elected president of the farm bureau at the meeting, said one of the reasons why young people aren’t getting into agriculture is cultural. Minkler is an unaffiliated candidate for county commissioner.
In his speech, Minkler urged farmers and ranchers to educate others about what the agricultural community does and why they do it to help cross that cultural divide.
“I think that Commissioner Greenberg and her awareness of the situation can have a big positive effect on that awareness and providing different ways that the next generation could get into it,” he said.
This year, the state launched an agriculture workforce development program that provides grants for businesses to hire agriculture interns. The program placed 20 apprentices around the state in its first year, including one at Tierra Vida Farm, which serves Durango, Greenberg said.
Denver also plans to host a succession summit in December were farmers and ranchers can access resources, like certified public accountants and attorneys, she said.
The Colorado Agricultural Mediation Program provides support for the complicated family dynamics involved in land succession. The state is also supporting agriculture in classrooms through educational materials.
Like Minkler, Greenberg urged farmers and ranchers to communicate across differences.
“I encourage you all to build unlikely alliances, to keep in touch, to share your similarities despite your differences,” she said.
Her main message?
“We have your back,” she said. “And please reach out.”