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Young farmers in La Plata County face expensive, dry future

New study finds water, land scarcity top agriculture concerns
Gabe French discusses the challenges facing new farmers as he checks on his chickens that are part of the farm operations at his All Season Farm LLC outside of Bayfield.

For a farmer in La Plata County, the future looks parched and costly.

Working the land has never been easy or necessarily profitable, but a recent study illustrates how water scarcity and land prices make farming in Southwest Colorado unattractive to the next generation.

National Young Farmers Coalition, a network promoting sustainable farming and ranching practices with two Colorado chapters, released a report last week outlining the challenges.

The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

“For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

“I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

“You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

“Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

“It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

“The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

jpace@durangoherald.com

Aug 2, 2021
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