Tom Markle said there’s no future for farming in La Plata County.
But the 27-year-old farmer has no plans to quit growing produce in the Animas Valley any time soon: “I’ve got a life sentence,” he said.
“I’m addicted; I like tractors,” he said. “I’ve been in this business too long, and every year is a big step forward.”
Markle, a Front Range native, said most farmers in the valley are in their 70s and 80s – and most of them have big farms where they grow hay for a local market. Some seasoned farmers laugh at his practices, like using plastic to protect produce from being overtaken by weeds, but the self-proclaimed “farm nerd” said he often proves them wrong.
The rift between generations comes by way of changing markets, Markle said. The farmers who, in the middle 1900s, worked the land he’s now leasing grew crops sold at local groceries, he said. Now, most of Markle’s produce is sold to the pop-up farmers market in front of Durango High School, he said.
“It’s hard to do anything in this town,” Markle said. “And farming is already damn near impossible.”
Mega farms with hundreds of acres and crop insurance are often the ones to set the price of produce, leaving local farmers like Markle competing with regional, national and even international markets. He sets his prices as low as he can – just enough for him to “scrape by,” he said – but local groceries and restaurants are a hard sell. He does most of the work, including planting some 70,000 onions by hand, himself, he said.
And Southwest Colorado’s 90-day growing season doesn’t help. Most of his sales come in November, December and January – particularly the week of Thanksgiving – from crops he grew in the preceding season. Markle said he’s been without income since April.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Agromedicine found “farmers had high levels of depression symptoms and average levels of anxiety symptoms compared with other occupational groups.” Agriculture work is one of the most stressful occupations and can be impacted by unforeseen and unpredictable weather events, according to the National Ag Safety Database.
“Winter is when I get to decompress; it’s like I’ve been holding my breath since April,” he said. “One hailstorm could wipe it all out.”
Markle moved to Durango for Fort Lewis College in 2010. He planned to get a degree in agricultural business. He was a big skier at the time and loved being outside, so Durango seemed like a good place to be. But after two years in school, he hadn’t learned much, Markle said.
“If I want to learn how to do this, I better go out and do it,” Markle said he told himself at the time
So he dropped out in his third year to pursue farming on his own. His parents thought he was crazy – the only agriculture experience he’d ever had was on a tree farm in high school – but Markle said they eventually got over it.
He’s been leasing and farming land in the Animas Valley since 2011.
Most of his farming knowledge came working 12-hour days, he said. A sort of trial-and-error education. He planted his field full of potatoes – Markle said he knew farmers in the region grew them and thought it’d be easier to grow one crop as opposed to a variety – but in the first few years he, more or less, grew at random.
But now he knows about how much yield he’ll get from a certain crop and how much work it takes to grow it, he said. People buy squash, so he grows it. Garlic is a hot commodity, so he plants it. The land he grows on was historically a celery farm, so he honors that tradition with a small patch.
He used to raise pigs for slaughter, but that was a lot to manage and “I got tired of killing animals, and we really shouldn’t be eating that much pork, anyway,” Markle said.
Each crop has it’s own quirks, and some are easier to grow than others, he said. Growing multiple crops is more difficult to manage, he said, but growing a variety gives him more opportunities in a competitive market.
Markle said this year he’s growing onions, squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, celery and sunflowers; all cultivated on 6 acres of the 20-acre Feller Farm on County Road 203.
“Part of me wishes I was on a 100-acre farm doing it for real,” he said. “But I can’t imagine doing anything where somebody is telling me what to do.”
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version gave an incorrect name for County Road 203. The error was made in editing.