Steamboat Springs Some recent newspaper articles and recent statistical studies by the federal government indicate that more farmers than ever are working part-time or even full-time jobs, away from the farm. They indicate that the average off-farm income is nearly $60,000 per year, while the average farm income (after expenses and depreciation) is about $2,600.
More than 50 percent of the farmers surveyed are also working at jobs away from the farm. When spouses are also considered, then the number approached 85 percent. Some work at a different career because of personal interest; others do so for economic reasons, to supplement personal income and have an improved lifestyle. Most take on the second job in order to be able to keep the farm and be able to pass it along to their children.
Another trend that has been identified is that of the farmers moving to simpler crops (such as alfalfa) that do not require extensive labor. There is also an increasing market for seed that has been pretreated to resist pests and weeds, for the same reason. And, the USDA now plans to study this situation further, in order to try and project the future impacts of these trends on farming.
What the USDA should do is look more closely at the average annual farm income of $2,600, and then visit Northwestern Colorado, to observe what has already occurred here.
First, since the advent of the modern winter tourist trade, there has been a natural interchange between the agriculture and resort communities. Farmers who operate tractors and related equipment in the summer, with operations largely dictated by the weather, adapted quickly and easily to the operation of snow cats and snow plows. This "trend" has been a fact of life here for many years, and the average farm income number provides a direct cause and effect relationship.
Second, as mentioned in a recent column, the farming activity in this area has moved from the raising of many crops to the raising of only a few, with a focus upon those which are simpler and easier to maintain. Again, what may be a "trend" elsewhere has been a fact of life here.
Third, farmers in this area have recognized the need to try and make some productive use of their properties during the large portion of the year that is not a growing season. A number of farmers now depend upon hunting leases or guide hunts on their properties, for their primary source of income. Others allow for use of their properties for horse tours, four-wheeler tours, and snowmobile operations.
Fourth, in spite of ever-increasing development pressure and rising real estate values, this region has made a major commitment to the preservation of agriculture lands and open space. Through voter-approved initiatives such as the Routt County Purchase of Development Rights Program, and the Great Outdoors Colorado "Legacy Program" there are funding sources that can partially compensate a farmer who is willing to limit future development of the farm. Aside from providing a capital infusion to the farm, a conservation easement can also provide tax benefits -- both from income tax and from estate tax.
Finally, the overall situation has created an incentive for local farmers and ranchers to combine their resources in innovative local programs, like Routt County Woolens and Yampa Valley Beef.
In the future, efforts of the Community Agriculture Alliance will likely provide further options and innovations. It really doesn't seem like further government study is needed to identify where the future of the small farm is headed.