As urban areas in the United States grow larger, housing tracts and highways replace nearby farms. This trend is evident in America's fastest-growing states, including Colorado. Two million Coloradans live along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, and more keep moving in every year. This rapid growth increases the pressure on farmers to sell out to developers. But near the city of Fort Collins, some farmers are cultivating human connections that just might save more agricultural land.
The weathered henhouse at Guidestone Farms gives the place a timeless feel. There's also a pen of friendly pigs, plus a small herd of dairy cows. And the folks at this 60 hectare farm don't sell their products through a middleman. Instead, customers, most of them residents of nearby cities and suburbs, come here. A growing number of small American farms follow a business model called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, in which consumers form a cooperative to pay in advance for a farm's upcoming harvest. As one CSA member places fresh brown eggs in a cardboard carton, she explains that she's driven all the way from Denver for her share of this week's harvest. The roundtrip is over 150 kilometers, but she says it's worth it, and not just for the eggs. "We joined primarily because of the milk coop, because I wanted the children to have raw, unpasteurized milk," she said.
Guidestone is the only farm in Colorado that's certified to sell raw milk. Demand is brisk, because many Americans believe that fresh, raw milk is more nutritious than milk that's been pasteurized, or heat-sterilized. Most states have laws requiring that retail dairy products be pasteurized, but those laws generally don't apply to milk consumed by dairy farmers themselves.
It takes a small, high-quality operation to ensure that raw milk is free of harmful germs. So Guidestone's dairy interns frequently disinfect the milking equipment. They scoop some corn for each cow before connecting her teats to the milking machine. They refrigerate the milk in sterilized, four-liter bottles. And since raw milk can sour after just 10 days, they can't just sell it in a supermarket, where it might sit in the dairy cooler for weeks. Instead, CSA members pick up their own milk shares. In many ways, Guidestone is a model of how small farms can succeed. At a recent Colorado Department of Agriculture conference called "The Human Side of Farming," the topic was how to protect these small farms against development pressures through community supported agriculture, new products and other innovative ideas.
So the conservationists, farmers and policy makers who attended had many questions for David Lynch, Guidestone's agricultural director.
For instance, although dairy farmers can drink their own, raw milk, in Colorado it's against the law to sell it. But thanks to a carefully crafted business plan, when city dwellers purchase a share of Guidestone's dairy herd, Mr. Lynch says that technically, they become dairy farmers. One share gets them about four liters of raw milk every week.
"We hired a lawyer and got a letter from the attorney general's office that gives us clearance to do what we're doing, based on the fact that we're providing a safe food product," he said.
Mr. Lynch feels the effort's been worthwhile, because every four liters of this "food product" earns the farm six dollars. That's more than twice the average price for supermarket milk. And there's no middleman to skim off profits.
"The raw milk is what keeps us on the farm year round, without having to go get jobs off the farm," he said. "And then all around that, the vegetable shares are another hub, and we do natural meats, beef, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey, and we do eggs and make yogurt. So all these are diversity, value added products, that actually make our farm economy pretty stable."
The farm's stable income is not enough to afford a fancy car or keep the henhouse freshly painted. But David Lynch says it enables Guidestone Farm to endure as a unique food production enterprise and to meet a special community need.
"Every farm is unique," he said. "Every farm has its own feature, its own personality, its own niche that it fills."
And these days, when many small-scale family farmers are struggling financially, simply staying in business can be a notable achievement. As attendees at this conference know, many small farmers are giving up and selling their land to housing and shopping mall developers.
"In Colorado, roughly 140,000 acres of agricultural land is taken out of production each year," he said. "Somewhere on the order of 28 or 30,000 are being permanently converted by being built upon."
That's about 57,000 hectares of land lost to farming each year. Ben Way, the conference's keynote speaker, works for the American Farmland Trust, a non-profit group that tries to protect America's best farmland from development. As the nation's population grows, Mr. Way says we'll need this land to continue producing our food. He worries that if we don't preserve it now, soon it might be too late.
"Once you build a house and dig a basement and put a foundation down and lay sewers and pipes and gas lines, it's converted forever," he said. "You will never be able to grow food crops on those lands again."
Mr. Way says urban communities across the United States are helping local farmers endure by purchasing more food from farms such as Guidestone. He notes that they are also aiding their local farms by supporting conservation easements and special tax breaks. And Mr. Way adds that while these measures may initially be costly, they'll benefit countless future generations.