Ben Gillespie isn’t like most 28-year-olds who call Colorado home. He lives on a farm owned and leased by his family west of the Continental Divide, where he spends his days tending to more than 200 acres. At the Living Farm, four generations of his family have raised sheep, cows, poultry, and pigs. They started building greenhouses on the site in the ’90s, and now have three, in which they grow everything from greens and tomatoes to squash and beans. The rest of their rolling acreage is dedicated to grass hay and alfalfa, with barley, oats, and triticale grains also cultivated to feed their livestock.

Gillespie’s grandfather, Jim, who still lives and works on the Living Farm, came to Paonia as a child in 1938 on the tailwinds of the Dust Bowl; his parents put down roots under the shadow of Mount Lamborn, an avalanche-scarred monolith rising from the patchwork of farmland that rolls in bucolic ripples toward the Western Slope. Three generations of Gillespies currently reside and work on the Living Farm, which shares a name with the family’s downtown café that serves seasonal fare—all grown and raised on the family’s acreage—to the van-loads of tourists who wind their way down McClure Pass each summer and pack the patio at the back of the restaurant.

young farmers
Three generations of the Gillepsies are pictured on the Living Farm in Paonia. Photo by Kirsten Dobroth

In decades past, Ben might have more in common with his Centennial State peers. But as young people leave family farms and the traditional agrarian economy behind, Ben knows he’s something of an anomaly in 2019.

“I’m a pretty rare commodity, but I’ve always known I wanted to stick with it. I remember falling asleep at my dad’s feet in the tractor cab when I was a kid,” he says when asked why he’s chosen to work for the family business. “At the end of the day, I manage my own time and there’s a lot of freedom in that. But it’s a lot of work, and I worry about [new farmers] burning out.”

America’s farmers are aging, and Colorado isn’t immune to the trend. Figures released this spring from the 2017 Census of Agriculture—a complete counting of American farms and ranches and the people who operate them, which is released by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) every five years—document a stark trend that puts the national average age of farmers at 57.5 years old (up from 50 years of age in 1982). Plus, farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under the age of 35 (also known as young producers) by more than 6 to 1, according to a 2017 report from the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC).

A similar story can be told of Colorado farmers, whose average age is just shy of 59. However, Census of Agriculture data showed some hope for the Centennial State’s farming future: Colorado is one of the top 10 states in the country for “new and beginning producers,” or farmers with 10 years of experience or less. Additionally, even as the acres of farmland in the United States decreased by 1.6 percent between 2012 and 2017, the overall number of farms in Colorado has increased by 7 percent.

AJ and Nicole Carrillo are pictured at their farm, Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest. Courtesy of AJ Carrillo

Just 20 minutes away from the Living Farm, AJ Carrillo and his wife Nicole (31 and 32, respectively), are just getting started as farmers in Hotchkiss. Native Front Rangers, they both graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder’s humanities program and worked on farms in and around the Boulder area after college. In the fall of 2016, they purchased 18 acres just outside of downtown Hotchkiss, a parcel with rows of mature peach trees behind their breezy, 100-year-old farmhouse. They named it Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest.

Part of the Carrillos’ business model depends on Nicole’s catering business, Forage Sisters, which utilizes the couple’s farm-raised meat and produce. This strategy has been increasingly embraced by beginning farmers, who are leaning away from bulk commodities and focusing on diversification to insulate themselves from things like crop failure and trade wars (“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” agrees Gillespie). But unlike generational farmers in the area, their from-scratch operation comes with unique challenges, like a lack of infrastructure and additional workers, as well as attempting to strike a work–life balance while starting a business with lots of overhead.

“Our neighbors are really encouraging, and I think a lot of people are excited to see young folks who want to farm and keep up the tradition of the region,” says AJ Carrillo. “But the first two years were really intense, and at the end of the first year we had to sit down and ask ourselves, ‘Is this really what we want to do?’ It’s been humbling and it’s a lot of work, but we’re living our dream.”

The Carrillos represent a burgeoning demographic of new and young producers across the country—one that the NYFC survey finds is overwhelmingly hopeful, concerned about the environment and sustainability, and educated. More than 80 percent of respondents claimed some level of higher education beyond high school, and, despite declining numbers of female farmers nationwide, more than half of respondents to the NYFC survey are women.

Nicole Carrillo works on the land at Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest. Courtesy of AJ Carrillo

I think that there are more and more women getting into agriculture and doing a really good job of it…I know a lot of very happy, very strong women who have found themselves in the field,” says Stephanie Syson, a 37-year-old graduate of the University of North Carolina Asheville’s Restoration Agriculture program, who, like the Carrillos, doesn’t come from a farming background. She now manages a medicinal herb farm in Carbondale, and also started a public food forest nearby in Basalt, called the Basalt Food Park, which increases community access to locally grown food and agriculture.

“I think there are more and more people waking up to the fact that farm fresh food is the way to go, and I hope it’s not just a fad,” says Gillespie. In fact, many young farmers reported that CSAs (community supported agriculture) and local farmers’ markets made up the bulk of their sales, with many new and beginning producers looking outside commodity-based models employed by many established farms.

Despite the optimism, there are serious ramifications coming regarding the fact that the country’s—and Colorado’s—farmers are simply aging out of the business. And without a new flock of producers, there are significant implications for America’s food supply. Add in headlines about rising farm debt, trade wars, and a mental health crisis in rural farming communities, and there’s no telling whether Colorado’s trend of up-and-coming young farmers will be sustainable in the long run.

Gillespie thinks that despite all of those hurdles, there’s promise in the next generation looking to join his family’s ranks. His advice to new farmers? “We’re here to give each other a hand. Don’t give up.”

Editor’s note: This is the first installation in a series of three articles on young farmers in Colorado.