By Mike Nolan
Sitting around our kitchen table in January, my farm partner, Mindy, and I discussed what the coming growing season would look like. It’s both habit and tradition to dissect our successes and mistakes from the previous season, which guides our operation in a positive and dynamic direction for the following. We had just come off our most successful year on the farm, grateful to be both profitable and healthy enough to do it again.
It’s now May and the Southwest is in one of the worst droughts of the last 100 years. It’s tough, heartbreaking, and a guarantee that our irrigation season will be short and unpredictable. Consequently, we are planting 80 percent less than normal. Some neighbors are moving cows out of the region or bringing them to the sale barn. Hay is expensive, if you can find it, and the prospects are slim that many ranchers will fill their hay barns this summer.
For a few weeks there, the only moisture on the farm was the sweat on my brow and the tears in my eyes. Our livelihood and business has never felt more fragile. My understanding for the issues facing agriculture in and beyond my little community has evolved to an all-consuming empathy, where I feel what others have felt for generations.
As a first-generation farmer, this is the first time I have sincerely felt Mother Nature threaten my livelihood in a long-term way. Drought years like this reacquaint even the most resilient of farms and its famers with the fragility that is agriculture.
In the last six years, farm income in the United States has dropped by nearly 50 percent, while the cost of production has steadily increased. The average age of a farmer is over 60, and farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by 6 to 1. Because of this, more than half of the agricultural equity (land, equipment, etc.) will change hands in the next 12 years. We only make up 2 percent of the population, and that number is dwindling fast.
These factors result in farmers having a suicide rate just under male military veterans ages 18 to 29. Farmer suicides are happening at a rate of 84.5 of 100,000, and prevention is such a priority that the Colorado Department of Agriculture has started a farmer-specific suicide hotline, where counselors are trained to understand drought, cattle, commodity prices, cost of production, and more.
I tell you, the eater, all of this because most of these stories are not on the consumer’s radar. I ask not just for your sympathy, but also for a favor. More often than not, a binary gets played out amongst consumers and within the greater food system. It often labels organic or sustainable farms as “good” and commodity or conventional farms as “bad.” This binary hurts agriculture. Picking sides hurts agriculture. Being dogmatic on either side of this discussion is not beneficial to how our food system is shifting. Additionally, it is definitely not beneficial to the emotional and financial bottom line of farmers, ranchers, and farm workers in this country.
While everyone is a consumer, very few of us are involved in agriculture. How you publicly frame agriculture ripples out. Please keep supporting your local growers as much as you can, and keep shopping in whichever produce aisle you choose. Meanwhile, do your best not to judge other consumers for their food choices or denigrate producers for their growing practices. Behind every piece of American-grown produce there is a family farm dependent on a consumer purchasing it.
The longer I am in agriculture, the less dogmatic about my own industry I become. An old mentor encouraged me to keep all the tools in the toolbox, and not to discard anything because someone else says you do not need it or it won’t work. Let’s not get so dogmatic about our food choices that we forget to be grateful for the simple fact that we have a choice to begin with. Food choice is a privilege that a lot of consumers in our region do not have.
I ask this favor for a personal reason. As I work on agricultural policy on a state and federal level, the perception of good vs. bad agriculture and food hinders farmers in being efficient in advocating for policy that works for everyone, from the urban farm to the commodity grower. When the duality is removed, the door opens for farmers to advocate for policy that is equitable and fair for all consumers and agriculturalists, no matter what aspect of the food system they’re involved in. I will fight for all of you if you will fight for all farmers — not just the ones that fit in your ideological box.
There are lots opinions and facts about agriculture, but rarely do I see those actually coming from the mouths of farmers. To learn more about agriculture policy and the issues that matter to us the most, please check out the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and National Young Farmers Coalition.
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union: rmfu.org, National Young Farmers Coalition: youngfarmers.org, Colorado Department of Agriculture Suicide Prevention: 844-493-TALK (8255)