In his 1986 essay, “In Defense of the Family Farm,” Wendell Berry observed, "money is the primary way to access land, but farming on a small scale performs poorly when it comes to creating financial wealth.”
The ability to buy agricultural land and pay for it by farming alone is not currently possible here in Boulder or most other developed places. This reality has weighed heavily on Alice and I over the past years, but also inspired us to pursue our dream of demonstrating a viable, ecologically managed, food-based model for agriculture in 21st century Boulder County.
Through the 1960ʼs, our farm, then well over 100 acres, was a commercial dairy with about 100 dairy cows, complemented by a dozen pigs, about 100 laying hens and a couple of horses. At that time, a new farmer buying a small agricultural property like ours in Boulder County might reasonably expect to be able to pay for the land over time through the value derived directly from managing that land. In other words, the productive value of the land was in sync with the market value of the land as a real estate commodity, and there were many farms like ours.
Fast forward to present times and the context had changed significantly. It is no longer possible to generate a living by farming land in Boulder County while paying off the value of that land. A grassroots movement toward local sustainability would like to recapture some of the potential benefits from having more small and mid-sized local farms in the Boulder "Foodshed," however most farm properties configured like ours have gradually disappeared, subdivided, or transformed into more suburban uses. Wendell Berry’s sentiments from the the 1980’s have only become more true.
Our Farm has survived the major dismantling process of the last decades, however it had been disconnected from its surrounding pastures which are now owned by the City of Boulder Agricultural Open Space program. When going through our review process in 2009 to obtain building permits, we were told by Boulder County Land Use officials that we were one of the only private agricultural properties in the county to go back into local food production. Since that time we have been learning how to manage our land regeneratively using animals to build the soils. After demonstrating this process for 10+ years we were awarded the lease on some of the adjacent acreage that used to make up the rest of this farm. This is a huge step towards our becoming a sustainable operation as these leases are awarded at way below what market value would be for any other purpose. Thus helping to bridge the gap between market value and farm value.
Surprisingly, the Covid pandemic seems to be coming to our rescue to make up for some more of the difference. Covid seems to have made people much more aware of the fragility of the industrial food complex and has helped not only to encourage people to support local food farmers, but it has also encouraged local politicians to support local food production and sales. As a result we have many more people looking for local food options and two very exciting legal changes to the status of local food farming:
1. Boulder County has legalized most small scale on farm meat processing.
2. The State of Colorado has legalized direct to consumer sales of many meat products without government oversight.
These are huge positive changes for local food producers allowing farmers to access retail food dollars without the typical regulatory prohibition. This should allow us to get to the point where we are economically stable and sustainable, but it will still not be nearly enough to put us in a position to pay off the value of the land.
We believe if Boulder is to succeed in facilitating a thriving and sustainable local agricultural system and reap the benefits for its citizens, a holistic paradigm shift still needs to happen which would promote a more farmer-friendly environment on agricultural lands in Boulder County. We hope that The Golden Hoof will be an early example of this paradigm shift toward a “New Ruralism” which could create a truly symbiotic relationship between the urban areas of Boulder and its rural surroundings for the mutual benefit of our community.