While the nation's new and young farmer population shrinks, Yuma County sees growth
Nikki Weathers swore she would never go back to an agricultural way of life or be a stay-at-home mom after leaving the family ranch in southwestern Colorado to pursue a degree at Colorado State University.
“We always tell people we raise corn, kids and cattle and sometimes in that order,” 36-year-old Weathers said, chuckling while standing in front of a pen holding about 300 cattle. “ And sometimes it gets a bit mixed up in there.”
Smaller county populations are shrinking as bigger counties’ are growing. 2020 census data show that is as true in Colorado as it is nationally. Rural birth rates are dropping, death rates are rising and young people are moving away. Some leave behind multi-generational farming legacies and the land that comes with it. Others are coming back.
Yuma County is on the Nebraska-Colorado border. Its rolling plains are dotted with farmhouses, oil wells, grazing cattle and about 10,000 residents.
Nikki and her husband Nathan Weathers co-own a 5,000-acre farm and co-parent two kids, Ty and Tenley, in Yuma. Nathan’s family has been producing for generations there. They get some help from Nathan's parents, who still run their own farm next door.
The couple met at Colorado State University after Nathan had already graduated. Unlike his wife, he always planned to come back to Yuma and pick up his family’s farming legacy. Nathan said his degree was just a “piece of paper that said I could go do something else” in case his agricultural plans somehow failed.
The couple is an increasingly rare breed in agriculture: young or less experienced producers. Between 2002 and 2017, federal survey data show the number of people running the same farm for fewer than 10 years dropped dramatically nationwide. Newer data isn’t getting collected until next year, but the decline is expected to continue.
“It's been a primary concern,” state agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg told KUNC. “We are always thinking about how we can support not just the next generation, but all future generations in agriculture, and make sure that agriculture remains a driving force in our state's economy and communities.”
That requires taking down barriers, Greenberg said, like making sure young people can actually afford to become farmers.
“It's essential that we have future generations working the land in order to make sure we have that knowledge passed down,” she said. “We don't want to lose the knowledge and experience that we've gained through so many generations … especially for Indigenous communities, Hispanic communities, other communities who have been farming here for a long, long time.”
Greenberg also worries about the consolidation this trend could lead to: a shrinking group of people or corporations, each with increasingly larger amounts of farmland.
But some places, like Yuma County, may actually manage to grow the population of new and upcoming producers.
“There's so many young farmers and ranchers coming back that dads are fighting against each other to get bigger,” Nathan Weathers said. “ And they're back in Yuma County for good reason. It's a great county to raise a family. It's a great county to farm and ranch. We've got the outlet for the feed. We've got everything that we need right here.”
At 38, Nathan is a fourth-generation Yuma County farmer on his mom’s side (third-generation on his dad’s). He and Nikki have been running this farm since 2007.
Bringing new ideas to the old business
The Weathers didn’t raise cattle in Yuma for decades; previous generations sold the ones they had over 20 years ago to focus solely on the planting operation.
About five years ago, the cattle returned at Nikki’s insistence. With around 300 cows in their pens today, the couple says the decision has been a financial boon.
But Nathan’s parents still want nothing to do with them.
“And that's fine,” Nikki said. “But then we've had to really change the goals and the vision for what the farm itself looks like, where we now have had to kind of separate off.”
The couple’s additions to the family’s agricultural legacy also include occasionally running a corn maze and pumpkin patch to educate local students.
“Our nieces and nephews live in town, go to school at a small rural school and just think that poppa's combine is poppa's combine, but don't understand the importance of having agriculture and what it actually means,” said Nikki, who came up with the maze and patch idea. “If we could break even and teach about (agriculture), then we thought it was a success. And we grew every year.”
They also attempted to create a monarch butterfly habitat, maintain three flourishing pollinator plots and want to install roof solar panels someday. But, one of the changes that matter most to the couple lies in a plan for the day their kids might take over.
“We talk about estate planning and estate planning gets talked to death,” Nathan said. “But the one thing nobody talks about is actual transfer of management.”
Nathan’s grandfather passed away last December. When his father took over the land 10 months later, he had to pay for it. At one point, Nathan told his dad, “you just took out a 30-year note buying your dad's ground, which we've already paid for once because grandpa had a note on it.”
And if Nathan someday tries to get that land himself, he’d likely have to buy it again.
“How in the heck can you pass land down three generations that have to pay for it three times and make it work?” Nathan said.
The older generations, Nathan said, tend to focus on ownership, wanting their name on their land.
“It's an honor and they deserve it. And there's absolutely nothing against that,” he adds. But he and Nikki see things differently. “We're structuring everything to where, you know, it should be seamless from us to our kids because that's the way I want it.”
It won’t be easy, though. Once the kids come of age, the couple has to figure out how best to incorporate the business for transfer, pass on financial equity and deal with taxes and constantly changing laws. The process can be complicated by the operation’s consistent growth.
It can be frustrating, Nathan said, because “when you get a plan in place, it's (only) good for a presidency.” But he still thinks the effort will be worth it.
“We don't want our kids going away. I mean, this county's been good to us,” he said.
And so far, the kids seem on board. Their 11-year-old has already promised to take over and help his parents retire to the mountains like his mother wants.
“I’m going to hold him to it,” Nikki jokes. “He can have the house and we’ll be long gone.”
This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.