Why Aren’t There More Small Farms? How Not to Double Local Food in the West


Hey there, this is Jason Gray of
Regenerative Media Network, and this is Regenerative Road Trip! Back in 2012… you
know waaaaaay back in 2012… remember when Gangnam Style hit the
interwebs, and and people really thought that the world was ending because a
calendar was running out of stone? Yeah, that 2012. A bunch of bored civic leaders
got in a big room with bad coffee and stale muffins to come up with a plan for
the future of the Pikes Peak region. They went into a few days of meetings and
breakout sessions and brainstorming and came forth and spoke with one voice the
proud and noble vision of what Colorado Springs would be in that far-off distant
future of 2030. When there would be amazing things like self-driving cars
and and private companies trying to go to Mars and and virtual reality and… oh
wait…. Well, the “Pikes Peak 2030 Sustainability
Plan” that they created endeavors to double small-scale food producers
growing food — and making a living doing it — in the region by 2030. This is a
laudable goal. I’m sure you all understand why this would be a good
thing, but let’s review. Let’s see… locally grown fresh food literally field
to fork is better for you and tastes better too. It also helps a region
keep more money local, in more ways. Naturally, we already buy our holiday
and birthday gifts from local craft sources right? Maybe folks who make cool
clothing accessories out of recycled electronics? Hint Hint, Click Click! Buying our
food locally keeps more money here that was otherwise definitely leaving the
region. We have the Colorado proud labeling system which is a great step.
But it’s just a first step. The pro level up version of this effort is when you
buy your food and ingredients from local farms direct or from co-ops or farmers
markets. Then a lot more of the money stays here. Also, unlike the first step of
Colorado proud no cut of that money is going to Amazon Whole Foods, Safeway or
Walmart. A lot of which again leaves the region. A lot
of Eastern Colorado’s agriculture economy is made up of multi-generational
farmers and ranchers. We are not that, so why did we start Gray Area Farm? “Farm Mom”
Tera Lynn was one of the principals at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind
and I am a finance geek by education. We sold our place in Falcon and moved
out to 40 acres between Rush and Yoder exactly because of those romantic
notions that everyone has about small-scale homesteading and farmsteading. Blue skies. Fresh air. The kids being able to run around a quarter mile
in any direction without any care. Reducing our carbon footprint. Oh… who am
I kidding? We wanted a zombie apocalypse bunker. Come on now, there’s a reason why
all us former high finance types are buying homesteads and becoming preppers.
So if it’s such a wonderful lifestyle and we have so many libertarian preppers
in this region already, why aren’t there more fresh veg and direct sale meat
producers around here? Why do we keep hearing of people starting and then
disappearing even within one season? Is it because there’s not enough farmers
markets? Because there’s not enough educated consumers? No! It’s because
sustainable farming without profit is by definition unsustainable. Small and micro
scale farming is a business. And we know that starting a small food-related
business is really tough. Almost all fail within the first few years. You know what
makes the chance of success even worse? Not treating it like a business… or being
bad at math.. or like at least one small farm around here that I worked with for
a while.. Both! What do I mean by bad at math? Let’s
take the most egregious of examples, the $2.50 a dozen egg. What goes into
the cost of a chicken egg? Coop building. Depreciation and repair. Brooder
construction. The chick itself. The feed to grow the chicken for seven months before
they even start laying. Loss and replacing when the Coyotes or abandoned
pet dogs get them. Bedding. Heat lamps or lighting if you’re into that. (We’re not
because of fire and power outages.) And all that’s before the very first egg
even arrives. Then you have to continue feeding them. Repair fencing. Wash the
egg. Candle the egg. Package the egg in new cartons every time with legal labels,
because we’re all doing that right? Because those rules don’t go away at
small-scale! refrigerate the eggs. Hop in your truck and drive to the farmers
market and then sit there for five hours under an expensive canopy that will get
destroyed every few months during farmers market thunderstorms. And,
oh by the way, there’s a lot of person hours spent within all of that. And you
have to pay yourself a living wage right? For two dollars and fifty cents a dozen!
You are out of your mind! It’s even worse if you try to go organic and soy free
and corn free and still charging $2.50 a dozen, which I have seen on Facebook
community groups around here. If they’re telling the truth — which isn’t guaranteed,
I’ve visited farms and seen corn kernels in their allegedly corn free feed — they
aren’t even covering half their feed cost with that $2.50! The
problem with small-scale production is that you don’t get to produce with
economies of scale. So you can’t compete with Walmart. That’s the biggest
knowledge gap that organizations farmers and online educators have to fill for
consumers and also would-be producers. Also, the lifestyle is not all that is
cracked up to be. We farmers are responsible for that
perceived lifestyle because we love sharing pictures of cute piglets and
happy chickens. But for every three cute piglets born out on pasture there’s one
that got squished by the sow, because we don’t want to use farrowing crates for
animal welfare reasons. For every big Instagram-quality organic head of
cabbage, there’s three that were hail damaged or beetle killed. For every dozen
eggs there’s a farmer sprinting out their front door at midnight with a
broom or a shotgun to chase off a dog that someone dumped in the country. We do
not get paid in sunsets. We cannot pay our expenses with the “benefits of the
lifestyle.” That’s the nationwide producer problem: small-scale food is necessarily
more expensive food. And we have to be okay with that. What
about the region specific problems that we need to overcome here in eastern
Colorado? The three biggest concerns for real estate is: location, location,
location, right? Well, the three biggest concerns here in the Mountain West are
water, water, and water. Joel Salatin likes to say “everything he wants to do was
illegal.” Well if he was here in Colorado, he’d be exactly right. Almost no one that
goes into the farmsteading thing around here realizes that if they’re on a well,
then making a living farmsteading is strictly illegal. There’s a significant
farm in eastern El Paso County that faced this problem. They got a cease and
desist letter from the Department of Water Resources. They were warned that if
they continued to sell veg, they would face $500 a day fines and they would
have their well condemned. That’s where they physically come with Sheriff
Deputies and pour concrete down the well! That particular farm only survived
because of a wacky, “you’ve got to be kidding me” style coincidence wherein an
existing commercial well was near them that they could buy from. The only ray of
hope for most farms is a relatively unknown Department of Water Resources
policy 2011 – 3. This allows you to grow veg or animal protein for sale on
domestic permit wells as long as the property is also your primary residence,
you only do an acre of garden maximum, the revenue from the plant sold is not
the primary source of income for the household — in other words a majority of
household income has to come from off farm employment, the primary purpose of
the irrigation is for personal use of the same kinds of plants that you’re
selling — so in other words basically only veg no-contract growing of alfalfa or
feed corn or whatever, irrigation of plants remains within the seasons of
irrigation — in other words no heated greenhouses, and finally no employees — so
thus interns, WOOFers and of course the family of the family farm. That all means
we can’t have medium scale, family, regenerative farms dotting the plains.
Tt’s going to be little guys like us. Lots of us.
And since 51 percent of your income has to be documented as coming from off-farm
employment, and you can’t hire employees, then this current water law system will
not help meet the Pikes Peak 2030 plan’s goals of being able to make a reasonable
income, producing food for the community. Even if we had all the water rights in
the world, people — especially folks in town — don’t realize how bad this
environment is for growing food. Especially when most of us are
transplants — heh, pun intended — from better growing areas of the country. Alkaline
soils, epic winds, super dry airs hails wind… did I mention wind? It’s really tough.
Once you get beyond micro scale, we’re really up against it as a region, if you
want to stay regenerative. Altitude plus severe UV rays plus wind plus no soil
organic matter plus no water… geez we might as well be growing on Mars! So just
like any good Martian trying to grow food… “we’re gonna have to science the
crap out of this.” No, we’re not talking about having Monsanto… or
sorry, Bayer Agroscience… GMO up a hail proof head of lettuce. But we need to get
rid of absolutism. A pure, open-air, soil based, permaculture and regenerative
farming that we all want is going to have to be supplemented for the first
few decades with something that will actually grow food in this environment.
Hoop houses, aquaponics, hydroponics, wicking beds, etc. You know who also wants
to grow food on Mars…. Anyone got Elon’s cell number? Because
maybe the community can get SpaceX to build a demonstration project out here.
But regardless, all of that information is a bit of a downer right? What’s the
way forward? One: stop romanticizing small scale and micro scale farming. It’s hard
and it is a business and businesses fail frequently. Two: figure out water. Until
2011 – 3 gets codified into the actual statutes, there’s always the risk
of it being repealed by the Department of Water Resources. That partially
combines with number three: Science! We can race climate change and start
creating better micro climates and better soil, but in the meantime we grow
how we can. Four: educate would-be producers and consumers about legitimate
sustainably profitable pricing, and running their farm business as a
business, and charging for quality. And five: support 4H and FFA. By 2030 it’s
going to be kids like Ainsley and Travis running places like Gray Area, and their
classmates running the ranches out here in Eastern El Paso County. If you happen to
have a business, come bid on the livestock projects at the El Paso County
Fair, especially from kids who are growing
their animals on pasture or otherwise regeneratively. In the meantime, if you
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2 thoughts on “Why Aren’t There More Small Farms? How Not to Double Local Food in the West

  1. All of the environmental limits you discussed can be overcome. However there's 2 things that stand in the way of that. The 1st one you already mentioned, which is time. And the 2nd one of course, is cost.

    It's really easy to do on a small scale like a home garden. But the cost difference between putting up a 30% shade cloth requiring a couple hundred feet of length, and hail protecting that couple hundred of feet is much different than what it would take to cover 20 acres of crops.

    The water rights issue, is of course, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. It's amazing how many people that have never lived out West have no clue of just how important water is out here. Most people don't know that there are still water wars in the West. The difference is, the wars don't involve shooting anymore, they involve lawyers.

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