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Small Farmers are 'A Dying Breed,' Colorado Grower Says

A growing urban population, diminishing water supply and high production costs are planting seeds of doubt about the future of Colorado's small farmers.

Oct. 18—A growing urban population, diminishing water supply and high production costs are planting seeds of doubt about the future of Colorado's small farmers.

El Paso County actually is seeing an increase in the number of small farms. But local farmers say rising production costs have forced them to find different ways to sell their products to make a profit.

"The farmer is a dying breed," said Leonard DiGrado of Pueblo, a longtime Colorado farmer. "Every day's a gamble and a challenge for farmers."

Agriculture is the state's third-largest industry after retail and manufacturing, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Small farmers — those with less than $10,000 a year in sales — account for more than half of the industry.

Colorado is one of 10 states to lose 100,000 acres of farmland last year. That's the second largest amount of land lost, after California, among the 50 states.

Analysts expect an average loss of 90,000 acres of agricultural land a year in the state, according to Jim Miller of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

El Paso County mirrors that trend. Although the number of farms is increasing, the total acreage of those farms is decreasing.

According to the 2002 census, the number of farms in El Paso County is 1,175, with a total acreage of 812,000.

In 1997, there were 851 farms with total of 867,000 acres.

Beginning in 2002, El Paso County and outlying farming areas experienced a drought of "unparalleled proportions," according to Steve Witte, water district engineer with Water Resources for Colorado.

The problem was compounded by stricter pumping regulations in the Arkansas basin because of diminishing well-water supplies.

The Arkansas Valley was pumping almost 14,000 acre feet of water to farms in 2000; that number dropped last year to about 5,500 acre feet of water.

Gary Hanagan of Hanagan Farms in the southeastern part of the state had to convert his 150-acre farm to a drip irrigation system to conserve water.

With the system, the farm — which specializes in Rocky Ford melons — uses 20 percent of the water it once did.

"It's hard having to fight for our water," said the third-generation farmer. "All the big cities on the Front Range are gobbling up all the water, and we still have to fight the drought. But it (a drip irrigation system) was just one of the changes we had to make in order to keep the farm."

In addition to land and water problems, farmers say it's hard to keep prices competitive while operating costs rise.

"When gas costs around $2 a gallon, a small tractor costs $25,000 to $30,000, then you have taxes, water, power and the cost of seed is 10 times higher than it used to be," DiGrado said.

"People just don't think about what it takes to produce food. People still think you can get a basket of tomatoes for 25 cents when everything else is going up."

In El Paso County, the market value of the agricultural products sold by farmers in 2002 was $30.3 million, and the net cash return from those sales was about $1.7 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Lisa Musso-Marino of Musso Farms in Pueblo, said her family — which has been growing peaches, tomatoes and award-winning corn for four generations — is having more difficulty than ever in making a profit.

"I love the people, and I love selling to them," Musso-Marino said, "But I can't feed them for free. I gotta raise the stuff and make a living."

To compensate for rising production prices, small farmers have attempted to capitalize on a hot market and become certified as "organic" growers.

But federal regulations have made the process costly and time-consuming, with fees ranging from $800 to $2,500 and a transition period of three years.

"Organic farming is hard, really hard. I know two organic people who had to give up farming," said Frank Schmidt, president of the Pikes Peak Farmers Markets. "Organic is just a rough way to farm because they can't use any herbicides or pesticides to take care of all the weeds and bugs. There is a lot more manual labor in that type of farming."

Many small farmers look to local farmers markets to sell some of their produce. Hanagan Farms and Musso Farms say about 35 percent of their overall income comes from selling produce at local farmers' markets.

Falcon resident Steve Hauerland appreciates being able to buy freshly picked, locally grown vegetables.

He has been making the trip from his home every Saturday for five years to buy produce from the Old Colorado City farmers market.

"I come here because I'd rather see them get the money than the big conglomerate superstores," Hauerland said.

"I believe this is fresh stuff, and I'd rather buy that than have food that's been stored in a warehouse fridge for months."

As small farmers are facing more challenging times, farmers markets have been growing — in the number of markets, days open, vendors participating and shoppers, according to Schmidt.

Many think the popularity and growth of local farmers markets will help small farmers sustain profits in the future.

There were six farmers' markets in the Springs area in 1999, with an average of 15 farmers setting up.

This year, the Springs area had nine farmers' markets with more vendors selling a larger variety of products to customers, according to Schmidt.

"I think the amount of people coming out has increased every year," Schmidt said. "I think freshness and value are the two things that have increased our business over the years. The ability to get fresh-picked produce and to get it at a fair price are the two things that have caused the growth in the farmers' markets."

© 2004, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.