November 2005

Coming Ag Expo to reflect trend toward small farms

By Gail Binkly

Expect a Four States Ag Expo in 2006 that reflects the latest trend in agriculture: the rise of small producers. While the big machinery and traditional exhibitors will still be there, the Ag Expo, slated for March 9-11 at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, will try to showcase small- and mediumsized farmers and ranchers as well.

These are the people who have 3 or 10 or 20 acres where they raise nontraditional livestock, value-added products, organic produce, or specialty crops such as greens for salad mixes, said Bob Bragg, executive director of the Ag Expo.

“We looked at the demographics of what’s happening in ag in this area,” he said. “Large farmers have not changed much in the way of numbers. Medium may have dropped a little bit.” But USDA statistics show small farms and ranches are on the increase, he said, and they need to be included in the Ag Expo.

“We’re trying to encompass the total agricultural-product picture here in the Four States area – livestock production, crop production, specialty crops, people who market direct to consumers,” he said.

Such producers include people who raise churro sheep for wool, small farmers who grow beans for soup mixes or specialty wheats, yak and elk ranchers, and farms such as Stone Free that market direct to consumers.

“Even wines can be considered specialty crops,” Bragg said. “I know (vintner) Guy Drew (in McElmo Canyon) is trying to find people to raise grapes for him.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says such farmers are marketing anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 in commodities annually. “That’s a demographic we haven’t looked at much,” Bragg said.

Dennis Hillyer, a member of the Ag Expo board and founder of Southwest Ag Inc., a farm-equipment supplier, has found that he doesn’t handle much big equipment any more, Bragg said. “Mostly what he does is for small producers, hobby farmers,” Bragg said.

“He’s been an exhibitor every year since it started. He’s seen the changes occurring in agriculture and the Four Corners region.”

Travis Imel, a member of the operations board for the Ag Expo, agreed. “I grew up in this area,” Imel said. “What we really see here is a growth in ag in this area in a lot of different stuff — organics, alternatives, people who have one or two acres and want to make it productive. There’s a whole emerging group of those farms who are in need of marketing.

“We don’t have the big corporate farms. That’s not the case here.” When Southwest Colorado began seeing a sharp increase in residential growth and rural subdivisions in the 1990s, everyone from old-timers to newcomers worried about the fate of area agriculture. To some degree, the rise in small farms and ranches is alleviating that concern.

“We went through a period where people said, ‘Farmers can’t make it and we won’t have any left,’ and that is still a concern, but I think ag is kind of coming around,” said Bragg.

He once raised hay in the Denver area but was forced out by development and moved to Cortez. Now, by teaching at the San Juan Vocational School and heading the Ag Expo, he hopes to help keep ag viable here. Farmers may be able to survive by getting creative and changing their outlook so they aren’t thinking only about producing on a commodity level, he said.

Nationwide, producers are branching out – raising pumpkins and selling apples to the people who come to see the pumpkins, putting in corn mazes, re-engineering their approach. The notion of small farmers and ranchers raising food and crops for marketing to the local area isn’t exactly new, Bragg noted.

“Fifty or 60 years ago there was a lot of local produce – McElmo Canyon veggies and fruit,” he said. “There was a creamery and a viable orchard industry.

“This isn’t something that’s never been done here before, but a lot of it disappeared and now it’s coming back,” Bragg said. “I think it’s because people want locally produced vegetables and meat produced direct to the consumer.

“And, with the high fuel costs, I wonder whether it’s going to continue to be economically feasible to truck food in from the coasts.”

If local producers could develop co- operatives or work through outlets such as Zuma Natural Foods in Mancos to sell their crops and livestock, the entire local economy could benefit, Bragg said. Farmers’ markets such as the one in Cortez on Saturday mornings are good outlets too, but generally operate only one day a week.

Marketing and trying new approaches are key to helping agricultural producers survive, he said, and the Ag Expo will provide a place for them to learn marketing approaches and swap ideas, as well as see the latest technology.

“American farmers have been some of the greatest producers in the world but some of the worst marketers,” he said. “They pay retail for everything and sell everything at wholesale.”

Since its inception in 1983, the expo has had ups and downs, but the last three years it has seen steady growth. The event draws growers, exhibitors and interested onlookers from around the Four Corners; in 2005 the gate count was 7,500.

“Attendance has grown pretty well,” Imel said. “There wasn’t a gate count done early on, but it’s grown significantly.”

“This is totally a four states farm show,” Bragg said. “It’s the largest in the area. You have to go to Greeley or California to find a bigger farm show.”

Bragg said traditional farmers and ranchers are generally happy to accept the newcomers to their industry, no matter the size of their acreage.

“I think the larger producers say that it’s a great idea,” he said. “They see the benefit of having a viable local agricultural economy. It’s good for the overall communities, it keeps the suppliers here. I’ve never found anybody that said, ‘Oh, those no-good small producers are ruining ag’.”

Information about the expo is available at www.fourstatesagexpo.com or by calling (970) 565-1836.