When did our world become one of so much risk management? Was it always this way but now the risks are shared among so many? A year of masks and COVID bubbles with a summer and fall of wildfire smoke, we are suddenly, hopefully more united in common foes and the strategies to deal with their impacts. As a subset of the U.S. population, farmers and ranchers are notoriously, ruggedly independent as business operators. Maybe it is the scarcity of the arid ecosystem in the west, but it seems even more so in Colorado than their East coast counterparts.
Weather related crises have the potential to unify the ag sector. Mother nature bats last in agriculture and farmers know that for all their best efforts to produce, hail, wind, frost and drought can put an end to an otherwise great farming year. Much of that is beyond their control, as is the current La Nina induced drought in Colorado.
Regulatory and marketplace risks are also often beyond their control and can be equally as devasting albeit often less as an event and more of a longer term downward pressure on farm profits, resulting in the perennial small business need to find ways to comply and compete, rethinking how they do business and implementing new action plans.
These types of risk are par for the course with agriculture. Workforce is a burgeoning agricultural labor concerns for Boulder County farmers and ranchers. The housing market is now a core business risk in labor intensive farm operations such as vegetable production. Not only are rents often beyond the reach of farm employees based on wages paid, but many employers estimate a need for more housing dedicated to the Boulder County agricultural sector.
To better understand agricultural housing demand in Boulder County, I broadly invited farmers and ranchers with or without employees, to explain the current use and forecast housing need for their business. Fifteen Boulder farms and ranches responded in late December 2020 and the results were eye opening. I created eight sectors on the plains of Boulder County and asked farms and ranches to spatially explain this use and need. From this small sample of producers, 46 single-family homes and 19 apartments are used. Fifty-four single-family homes, 15 apartments, and at least 16 tiny homes are needed.
The February 2020 Boulder County Ag Labor Survey from my office found (14 specialty crops producers responding) that 63 percent of ag employers thought housing for farm workers was an extreme business risk and 94% point to the cost of housing as the key barrier for workers. It now seems plausible that even in the rental market, aside from owning the single-family homes needed, availability of 54 single-family homes for rent in a competitive rental market is also a major barrier.
The question remains, how will farm and ranch employees find affordable housing in Boulder County?
Another thought brewing in my mind is, why should anyone care? If farms and ranches producing local food can’t pay enough for their workers to compete in the housing market, that is their problem, right? The same February 2020 survey found that all respondents cannot pay more in wages and 69% struggle to remain profitable with the wages they currently pay, which is $12 to $14 per hour for entry level workers and $15 to $18 per hour for management level workers. If farmers are unable to remain profitable with increased wage rates and if we really value the working lands they steward and the local food they produce, are you willing to pay more for their ag products?
And if not, what other creative solutions can an innovative community like Boulder County produce?
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension. Adrian is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information on agriculture in Boulder County, visit boulder.extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.