Farm and Ranch Succession Strategies for a Changing West

With a growing percentage of this nation’s population (especially younger generations) migrating to more urbanized places, rural communities are increasingly becoming novelties for weekend getaways. Economic, social, and lifestyle choices tend to draw young people to already burgeoning urban epicenters, often promising a new life brimming with opportunities. This urban allure, real or not, leaves a void in the succession pattern of the nation’s farms and ranches, and furthers the disconnect between people and the land. With the average age of an American farmer and rancher at 58, the urban-rural shift has significant and real effects on the places and populations that lie in the wake. Water, food, and other life-giving resources are and will always be the products of our rural places and people.

According to the United States Census Bureau urban areas now account for 80.7% of the U.S. population. Here in Colorado, the population is expected to double by 2050, a vast majority of which is destined for the rapidly urbanizing Front Range. Coupled with the facts that in Colorado the 65+ demographic is set to grow by 125% by 2030 (Colorado State Demography Office) and that this population owns a majority of the rural and agricultural land, a period of widespread transition and uncertainty is looming. This leaves a vast quantity of rural land changing hands in the near future and a population whose focus is on maintaining their urban lifestyle.

However, there is hope. Recently I attended the second annual Colorado Land Link Forum hosted by Guidestone, a non-profit focused on creating a sustainable future for the bio-region of the Upper Arkansas River Valley. The forum focused on the importance of keeping existing agricultural lands viable while ushering in the next generation of farmers and ranchers to take the helm from an aging ownership. We discussed at length the role of land conservation and the protection of senior water rights in the future of food production in the West, and identified the barriers that exist in making the step towards this end. Beginning farmers and ranchers (who are also growing in numbers) are often unable to realize their goals due to a lack of access and tenure to viable agricultural land and the costs associated with establishing new operations. The Colorado Land Link Program serves to mediate this issue with the goal of keeping land that has been in production stay in production with serious and committed up-and-coming farmers and ranchers.

Since my tenure with San Isabel Land Protection Trust began last August, it has become apparent to me that land conservation is an extremely useful tool for accomplishing a multitude of goals, including addressing land succession. Conserved land increases habitat stability, helps to maintain watershed health, and protects viable agricultural lands from the pressures of development and the removal of water from the land, or what we refer to as buy and dry. A land trust also connects people with places, and can help find ways to reduce the financial barriers that aspiring farmers and ranchers face by connecting them with those who own land and are interested in maintaining its integrity and productivity. A land trust helps to fuse the connection between the legal and perpetual protection mechanisms and the people who own and manage land. Using this toolset, the land trust community could be paramount to building the bridge between current landowners, their agriculturally significant land, and the next generation of stewards and producers.

Perhaps I am biased, being a member of the demographic perpetuating this urban-rural shift, but the economic and lifestyle incentives for us to make our lives in these rural places are difficult, if not prohibitive. Chalk it up to the times we live in, but besides piles of student loan debt neither me nor anyone I know in my generation really owns anything, especially land. In fact, it seems as though we have avoided ownership and opted for the temporary low-risk choices that an urban existence offers; furthering the gap between people and the land we rely on. Having taken the time to broach these rather bleak realities, I also want to emphasize the incredible potential that we share for being a proactive force in a more sustainable future. Through calculated collaboration between the worlds of land protection, agricultural production, and the increasingly isolated urban demographic, we can reconnect people to the land that satiates us all.

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