Way back when – perhaps the late 1990s – I wanted to be a farmer.
I was close to getting mybachelor of science degree at Montana State University and was taking those “fluff” classes, so I could coast right into getting that piece of paper, the potential presents that came with it (We were nearing year seven of college, so people were starting to wonder if the graduation gifts would expire) and drinking copious amounts of keg beer.
But during that time, my plant interest was steering away from ornamentals and driving directly to vegetable production. I didn’t grow up in the country; my parents weren’t farmers; and I only had limited experience gardening, which primarily consisted of watching my two grandpas garden in their respective backyards.
Yet, there was this attraction to farming. I couldn’t get enough of talking to farmers, finding out what worked, what didn’t. How much time they spent weeding compared with the amount of time harvesting. I would spend afternoons in greenhouses and countless summer days at the university’s campus farm.
I loved it, and I knew it was my calling. But I was naïve, and like many young, unrealistic graduates, I didn’t quite understand the economics of farming. I was blinded by the romance.
Not being able to find full employment on a farm that was compensatory for a college graduate, I ended up doing what many graduates do: I worked in a restaurant. That got old quickly (two years), so I did what many graduates-that-work-in-kitchens-and-still-can’t-afford-land do: I went to graduate school.
My urge to try farming came right back, but after two summers of planting, weeding, thinning, hilling and harvesting potatoes, beans, squash and pumpkins, I began to second-guess my farming plans. Still confident in my skills, I started to wonder – silently and out loud – if I was cut out for this.
As a graduate student, I was making slightly less than many of the farmers in the Ithaca, New York, area; however, I had the distinct (stress-related) advantage of not having to worry about selling what I grew. Heck, by the end of the second year of collecting data, I was actually hoping for some crop failure as it meant less data gathering and crunching.
My career ended up steering away from being a farmer, but I chose what I thought was the next best thing: educating them. And now, as we jump ahead another decade (ugh), I constantly see young and beginning farmers in those same shoes I wore years ago. Wide-eyed and full of energy, I sometimes wish I were them.
It’s a true challenge to start farming here in Southwest Colorado. High cost of living, expensive land, variable (and seemingly ever-decreasing) water supplies, short growing seasons – the list of impediments can be quite daunting. But every year we see new producers pop up. And amazingly enough, many of them have the skills, fortitude and desire that get them to farm again successfully.
And they are not alone. Support systems are starting to form. A combination of established – Colorado State University Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union – and newer – National Young Farmers Coalition, Old Fort Incubator Program, Southwest Young Farmers, Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado – organizations are developing programs and opportunities for these new farmers to succeed without mortgaging their present or their future.
So next time you buy vegetables at a local farmers market or grocers, frequent your favorite restaurant or get a box of food from your favored farm, know the path from farmer to you can be much longer than the time it took to grow those veggies.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.