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The next generation of farming? A millennial takes the mantle

Mancos ranchers urge aging farmers to partner with youths to keep business going

As Mancos ranchers Patricia and Jack Burk grew older, they faced a dilemma. They wanted to see their Burk Beef business continue but had no one to maintain their lands and cattle.

“In 2012, it became apparent that we were not able to physically continue to do what we had done for the past decade,” Patricia Burk said at a recent presentation the couple gave at the Mancos Public Library.

They had a daughter, but she and her family were not interested in managing the lands themselves.

And so, after downsizing their cattle herd and doing some thinking, they landed upon a solution that would not only help them, but also would allow an aspiring farmer to get an agricultural beginning. They brought Dustin Stein into their lives, giving him the experience and land necessary to kick off his farming career and ensure the survival of Stubborn Farm and Burk Beef.

The Burks are not alone in their predicament.

Farmers nationwide are aging, and generational farming – the traditional practice of passing land down to one’s children – may not happen, either because farmers are childless or because young people choose not to follow in their parents’ footprints.

And the startup costs facing young people interested in pursuing agriculture from a nonfarming background are often insurmountable.

“It’s a real crisis across the nation, to have so many 65-year-old farmers,” said Jack Burk. “And ultimately what happens is that they almost wake up one day and decide they have to get rid of it. ... And that usually is putting it on the market and selling it.”

He hopes to encourage others to follow his model, to forge young-old partnerships and so preserve the future of the small family-owned farm.

The baby boomer Burks

The Burks live in the house where Patricia grew up, on a parcel of land along County Road H just off U.S. Highway 160. Her father had moved to Mancos in order to help develop the irrigation infrastructure after the construction of Jackson Gulch Reservoir. As a professional soil conservationist, Patricia Burk said, he picked a property with fertile soils.

She worked as an educator, teaching music, movement and piano.

Jack Burk grew up raising cattle on a farm in Monte Vista and graduated from Fort Lewis College the first year they offered a four-year degree. He then earned his doctorate and went on to teach botany at California State University, Fullerton for most of his career.

The Burks moved back to Mancos around the turn of the century, taking over Patricia’s father’s property after he died. Soon into retirement, though, Jack Burk felt the urge to return to his roots, and they acquired some cattle.

They grew Stubborn Farm and Burk Beef from there. And as they grew older and considered what to do with their business, they became aware of a problem at the other end of the age spectrum.

Young people interested in agricultural careers face increasing difficulties, as land and production expenses have escalated in price, Jack Burk said. Comparing data from 2002 to 2012, the medium farm size had decreased from 105 acres to 50, yearly production expenses had shot up from $18,586 to $42,670, and the market value per acre had increased from $516 to $1,108. Farmland was being valued for development, he said.

“What they can afford is so small that it’s almost impossible to make a living off it,” Burk said.

While historically, land was passed down from parents to their offspring – alleviating startup costs – this doesn’t always happen anymore, and the pool of possible replacement farmers is dwindling.

According to the latest Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012 there were about 1.07 million farmers between the ages of 48 and 66 and roughly 701,000 baby boomers ages 67 and up. Coming up as potential replacements, however, was a much smaller group: Only 214,000 Generation X farmers ages 36-47 and less than 120,000 millennials ages 20-35.

The average age of land ownership increased from 50 in 1982 to 58 in 2012, according to the Noble Research Institute.

Something needs to happen to grow this replacement pool, thought Burk, to encourage young people who, despite lacking direct agricultural family ties, were interested in farming. And that’s how the Burks found Dustin Stein.

The next generation

Stein grew up around Denver and studied at Fort Lewis College. Although his grandparents had been dairy farmers in Wisconsin, he did not have an agricultural background before deciding to pursue ranching as a career.

The greatest startup cost for new farmers, Burk said, is land and equipment. But another significant barrier is the knowledge – they have no one to pass down knowledge and skills, and they can’t afford to make the mistakes that accompany a learning process.

When Stein met the Burks, he was growing vegetables on leased land.

“That’s a scary position to be in, where you don’t know if you’re going to have the next year,” he said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure and investment, both time and energy, and money.” He had hopes of raising livestock someday.

After meeting and deciding to move forward with a partnership, the Burks and Stein met with a lawyer to draw up a contract, and Stein officially joined the team in 2012. He now serves as ranch manager, in charge of all daily operations and sales.

Essentially, through their agreement, Stein is able to use land and equipment, a house on 5 acres, a monthly salary and, crucially, backup capital.

“One of the most critical things in terms of young farmers and ranchers getting started, is things happen that you can’t predict, when there’s no money in the bank to pay for them,” Burk said.

In return, the Burks receive income generation, their infrastructure and equipment are used and maintained, and their partner has added value to Burk Beef.

“Dustin has also probably more than tripled the value of our beef business,” Jack Burk said. “Simply by creativity and good genetics and all of those kinds of things, he has added value to what happens on the ranch.”

And on a more emotional level, and perhaps more aligned with the tradition of generational farming that has existed in the West for decades, the agreement has given him a son, Burk said.

“I never had a son, and now I have one,” he said.

How it works

Stein faced a steep learning curve initially – “I wasn’t terribly proficient in the beginning” – but Jack Burk said the partnership has been fairly seamless in terms of compatibility, shared values and his partner’s positive attitude.

And importantly, he found someone with a demonstrated long-term commitment.

“I intend on dying on Patricia’s dad’s place,” Stein said.

The Burk Beef land-share agreement is not entirely new. You can see such contracts nationwide, Jack Burk said, with advocates from farmers unions and conservancy groups. Longevity is crucial to survival, and if family farming is to continue, there must be someone to take up the mantle.

“The only way to fix this is to help young farmers get started,” he said. “Give them what they would have had if they’d been an offspring of a landowner.”

ealvero@the-journal.com

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