HomeLink Magazine Summer 2017: Local Agriculture Industry

Sustainability + Resiliency = Prosperity

By: Todd Hagenbuch, CSU Extension
Photos Courtesy CSU Extension

In the ten years since HomeLink has been promoting “Sustainable Building, Sustainable Living,” the term sustainability has really described how, as a society, we can live in a way that enables our communities to thrive without unnecessary damage to the ecosystem that supports us. In the past five years, however, the word resiliency has been used as often, or more often, than sustainability to describe how we can interact with a changing environment and still prosper.

Ohio State University, one of Colorado State University’s Land Grant University partners, sums up this relationship between sustainability and resilience well. The OSU Center for Resilience states that, “Resilience—resisting disorder—may be the key to global sustainability.”

One group especially emblematic of the concept of resiliency in search of sustainability is growers—farmers, ranchers, and gardeners. By necessity, our local growers have shown a great deal of resiliency in the past ten years and likely this quality will continue to be an asset in the next ten. What did we learn from the past decade that we can carry forward?

Commodities markets are variable.  The past ten years has seen some of the highest payments for producers. Cattle ranchers sold not only their calf crop for the best prices ever, but their culls, too. In October of 2014, steer calves, the bread and butter for most Yampa Valley cattle producers, were selling for $300/cwt, or $3/lb. In October 2016, they were worth less than half of that at around $140/cwt, or $1.40/lb—while expenses remained the same.

Wheat producers in the Yampa Valley saw similar price gains as grains and other commodities broke new price records. The past couple of years, however, has seen a dramatic drop in the prices our producers are getting, and with producers getting well below $5/bushel for wheat, some stand to lose money if they even bother to plant a crop.

Real estate markets are variable, too. The past ten years has seen the real estate markets drop and climb. As this publication was making its debut, the housing market was holding its own, followed by a dramatic free-fall. While this decline devastated many, it also brought about an opportunity for some to buy real estate. Food producers experienced the same roller coaster ride with their land values, and while some benefited by being able to buy productive lands, others weren’t so lucky.

The amount of precipitation we get in the West is variable.  While most long-time westerners can tell you this has always been the case, it was never as evident as it was in the years of 2011 and 2012. 2011 saw record snowfall in the mountains around the Steamboat Springs, and runoff that spring, while slow, led to flooding throughout the Yampa Valley. The very next year, a severe drought hit our area, and anyone who grew anything felt it. Cattle were culled and sold, hay meadows that were typically put up weren’t, and gardens, yards, and trees throughout the area felt the repercussions fully.

Temperatures in our area fluctuate—always. Just last summer saw an early spring and a late fall, which should have meant a longer growing season. But right in the middle of that long period of frost-free days, an unexpected dip into the upper 20s in mid-July took many plants, especially garden vegetables, out of production.

Resiliency in Action.  Our producers and community are more resilient as a result of the last ten years, and programs and policy changes have also occurred that will help us remain more resilient into the next decade. The Community Agriculture Alliance (CAA) has created an online local food market for local producers to sell directly to consumers, helping to even out market volatility. CSU Extension and the CAA are working to create a Land Link program that helps get young, beginning producers on lands being held by retiring or absentee landowners in an effort to keep lands productive even if they aren’t affordable. The dam at Stagecoach Reservoir was raised to help reserve a bit more water when we have it for the lean times. Routt County enacted new policies to make it easier to build greenhouses, so climate variability can be mitigated. And xeric and water-wise landscapes using native plants and trees are becoming more common in our neighborhoods, helping to create a community more resilient for our birds, beneficial insects, and ourselves.

There will be one constant in the next ten years, just as there was in the past ten: variability and disorder. Knowing that, ask yourself what can you and our community do now to be more resilient—sustainability depends on it.