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Next generation of farmers needed behind the plow

Megan Davey of Mancos helps plant potatoes on a plot near Turtle Lake as part of a program that seeks to bolster young farmers while at the same time bring fresh food to underserved populations. (Journal file)
Regional meetings to address access to land and water for new farmers

Access to farmland and water can be major barriers to new farmers entering the business as the older generation retires.

Beginning this month a series of meetings in Montezuma and La Plata counties will address equitable land access as part of a yearlong study.

Organizers of the Equitable Land Access Study include La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Montezuma Land Conservancy and the Old Fort of Hesperus. The meetings will be facilitated by Sagebrush Ltd.

According to a 2021 report from the National Young Farmers Coalition, over the next 25 years two-thirds of U.S. farmland will need a new farmer, but new farmers struggle to access land. The average age of the American farmer is 59.4 years.

“There are many exciting projects happening throughout the country that are breaking down barriers to land access for those who otherwise would not be able to afford, acquire, or even take part in land-based work such as agriculture,” said Montezuma Land Conservancy Deputy Director Molly Mazel in a news release. “We feel equitable land access has room for improvement here in Southwest Colorado and our working group looks forward to speaking with our community in hopes of learning what projects could benefit the people and landscapes of our area, and how entities such as land conservancies could play a role in advancing those efforts.”

One of the key stakeholders for the next generation of farmers is The Old Fort at Hesperus Farmer Training Program.

“Addressing land access for beginning farmers is part of building an equitable and vital food system,” said program coordinator Elicia Whittlesey. “Farming is challenging in this region, and yet it is a viable way to make a living when stable land access is within reach.”

The Farmer Training Program at the Old Fort offers an immersive, five-month program and community courses focusing on successful techniques for high elevation vegetable production. Program graduates go on to pursue careers as farmers and food systems advocates.

The newly launched Equitable Land Access study seeks to better understand the barriers new farmers and other land seekers face to access land, build equity in land and how land trusts can play a role in supporting enhanced access to land for agricultural purposes.

Organizers said the hope is for multiple initiatives to arise from the wide-ranging effort, building on existing work in both counties and piloting new projects.

The free community meetings are open to all members of the public. The meeting schedule is:

  • March 27: First National Bank, 2258 Main St., Cortez, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
  • April 3: Ute Mountain Community Center, Towaoc, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
  • April 11: Mount Lookout Grange, 680 W. Grand Ave, Mancos., 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
  • April 17: Sunnyside Market, 1305 Escalante Drive, Second Floor, Durango, Colorado, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
  • April 24: Southern Ute Museum, 503 Ouray Drive, Ignacio, Colorado, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

To register to attend, please visit www.lposc.org or montezumaland.org.