Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension’s agricultural agent for Boulder County, sees potential for a property at 12525 Quicksilver Road just south of Longmont to help combat a common problem faced by local farmers in this expensive housing market: finding affordable labor.
The property, which is for sale, holds a 24-unit housing facility previously owned by Boulder County. It once was home to farmhands, some, according to Card, for the once-mighty Tanaka Farms vegetable growing business that saw its end through a 2016 auction of assets following the death of well-known farmer Dick Tanaka.
The housing structure was known as Casa Vista. It was bought through a federal grant and owned by Boulder County to house agricultural laborers, including migrant workers, until it was put up for sale in 2011 after a failed attempt at renovating the facility to better host families of workers.
It was most recently used as a hemp plant cloning space, according to Aaron Grant, the owner and listing agent. When it still hosted farm workers, it helped farmers solve the conundrum of being able to pay workers a living wage while still turning a profit. Wthout supportive housing for farmhands who love putting their hands in the dirt, few local farm owners have the overhead capacity to pay a wage that allows workers, especially those with families, to rent or buy living space in Boulder County’s tight and pricey housing market.
“The shortage of labor affects all farming operations, public and private, but the broad-acre farms are getting by best they can with big equipment and ag chemistry,” Boulder County Agricultural Resources Manager Blake Cooper said. “The organic producers who rely heavily on hand labor are in an even worse predicament.”
Sarah Rose, from left; John Martin, Katie Eaman, and Caitlin Ryan plant coriander June 13 at Stonebridge Farm near Lyons. Owner Kayann Short said she has 15 “barter members” of its community-supported agriculture model who each work three to four hours a week to earn their share of the farm’s harvest.
Housing helps keep workers
Card believes county leaders should at least think about purchasing or finding a way to otherwise again operate Casa Vista to give area farms another option to hire desperately needed labor at a wage that is fair to both parties, considering free or low-cost housing for the worker could be part of the deal.
“It’s a long shot, but it will be increasingly challenging to build a similar type facility in this county,” Card said. “The opportunity for on-farm housing doesn’t exist for every producer, every farm. … If I have cheaper housing for (workers), that’s a retention strategy. And could even be a recruitment tool.”
Grant has received calls about the property from private agriculture parties who are intrigued by potentially reviving the farmhand housing. Initial discussions with both Boulder County about converting its zoning from agricultural to allow for a new affordable multi-family structure, and with Longmont about annexing the land haven’t given Grant the idea either request would be successful, he said.
“Barring annexation, I think that ag workforce housing would have a public and private benefit to convert it to what it was used under the Tanaka family in the ’90s,” Grant said.
Even as Cooper predicted the county would have little interest in purchasing the property again so soon after selling it, Boulder County Housing Authority continues to run the 32-unit Casa de la Esperanza multi-family complex in Longmont dedicated to helping agricultural workers.
Agriculturalists who haven’t been able to hire and house laborers there, like Kayann Short, owner of Stonebridge Farms east of Lyons, and Cody Trevithick, who farms both privately owned land and leases agricultural open space from the county just north of Longmont, have had to find creative solutions to get affordable help on the farm.
Short said Stonebridge has 15 “barter members” of its community-supported agriculture model who each work three to four hours a week to earn their share of the farm’s harvest, to which other members must subscribe and pay a yearly fee.
“These are the people who want to have their hands in the soil and value keeping farms,” Short said.
Stonebridge also traditionally hosts an intern or two each growing season, often students at University of Colorado Boulder, in on-farm housing, and they get the benefit of a hands-on experience in agriculture and a share of the farm’s harvest.
Trevithick, who also works as a firefighter in Longmont and Hygiene, said for the most part he relies on hiring his friends when he needs an extra hand.
Cody Trevithick checks the moisture content of one of the bales of alfalfa on his farm north of Longmont on June 15. He also works as a firefighter to supplement the income he earns from farming.
“It’s impossible to find people that can help you,” Trevithick said, adding he would like farming to be his full-time gig, but it isn’t lucrative enough. “Usually the people that can help you are kids still in high school. But with minimum wage being as much as it is, I don’t think I make that when I farm.”
A new state initiative, the Agricultural Workforce Development Program, will try to simultaneously attack the agricultural labor shortage and concerns about aging farmers by building the workforce through paid internships. It announced last week that four Boulder County farms — Community Table Farm and Ollin Farms, both in Longmont, and North Field Farm and Father Earth Organic Farm, both in Lafayette — will be among 20 across Colorado in the program’s first year. The state will reimburse farms up to 50% of interns’ wages, not to exceed $5,000 per internship.
“As a new farm operation, having my first intern has allowed me to expand my farm and to learn about my own leadership capabilities,” Andrew Nowak with Longmont’s Community Table Farm stated in a state news release. “Without this new help, my business would still be in its beginning stage.”
Local wage floor hikes could hurt
But Card sees the bill signed into state law this year allowing municipal and county governments to set their own minimum wage as a possible threat to farmers in Boulder County, where the cost of living is higher than surrounding areas.
“Most of the farms in this county recognize they have to offer $12 (per hour) or more to attract workers,” Card said. “What if Boulder County says we’re going to make it $18? That’s a tremendous business risk. On a produce farm, about 60% of the total business expenses are in payroll. People are expensive. And they’re absolutely integral to these businesses and need to be valued as much. There is a really tough balancing act for farms to pay that rate and remain profitable.”
He noted the agriculture sector, especially produce growers, are increasingly looking to international sources of labor, especially through the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program, including farms in Weld and Adams counties and on the Western Slope.
But he is unaware of any farms in Boulder County employing migrant workers through that program, and sees a hypothetical effort by either public or private entities to acquire more local housing devoted to temporary farm workers as a chance to simultaneously combat the dangers of homelessness in the wintertime.
“There are two audiences that have overlapping, dissimilar housing needs,” Card said. “We need to house seasonal farm workers May through October. What if we had a homeless population that for their own personal safety had to be in housing for the cold part of the year? I think there are some creative ways that the (farmhand) housing wouldn’t have to sit idle.”
Sandy Banta, from left; Sarah Rose; John Martin; Katie Eaman and Caitlin Ryan plant coriander Jun3 13 at Stonebridge Farm. In addition to hiring barter workers, Stonebridge also traditionally hosts an intern or two each growing season, often students at University of Colorado Boulder, in on-farm housing, and they get the benefit of a hands-on experience in agriculture and a share of the farm’s harvest.