The view from the family farm of Chad and Carolyn Franke is breathtaking. The entire span of the snow-capped Front Range stands to the west, with Pikes Peak to the south, Longs Peak to the north, and Mount Evans in the middle. A glance to the north reveals the white grain elevator in Roggen, a community along I76. The farm is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of fields and farms.
Living on the high plains is a way of life for the Frankes. Running a farm is a business, too. The Frankes raise hogs for Whole Foods. It is a marketing arrangement that works well for seller and buyer.
“We kind of fell into the Whole Foods deal,” says Chad. “We have been raising a few pigs for freezer pigs. I was delivering some pigs to the processor who packages the cuts and overheard Dave Ellicott, the owner at Innovative Foods, talking about needing to find more people to grow Berkshires for the Whole Foods market. I got to talking to him some and mentioned we might be interested if the numbers work. After running the numbers and making plans, we had our first Berkshire sows within about a month and delivered the first GAP certified market hogs for Whole Foods nine months later.”
Innovative Foods Custom Meat Processing is owned by Dave and Tami Ellicott. The facility is located in Evans, a small community just south of Greeley. GAP stands for Global Animal Partnership, a non-profit organization whose standards spell out how to assure animals are raised with high attention to their welfare. Whole Foods promotes GAP certification for the meat products it makes available to consumers.
“Whole Foods is very interested in sourcing and selling local foods,” says Chad. “They try to buy as much as possible within the sales regions. Berkshire pork is well known as a premium meat and Whole Foods can’t get enough to satisfy their demand. I believe there are currently six producers including myself and we are supplying enough pork for six to eight stores of the 34 Whole Foods locations in the region.”
Berkshire hogs require a lot of feed and their litters tend to be fewer than other breeds. This means the production costs are higher. The reward is a cut of pork that appeals to consumers, and at a high level.
Returning to his farming roots
If Chad and Carolyn Franke make farming look easy, be assured it takes hard work to start from scratch and build a sustainable operation. If they give you the impression they have been doing this for years, well, that deserves an explanation. Chad considers himself to be a beginning farmer: he simply started later in his adult life than others who grew up and stayed on a family farm
Chad himself grew up northeast of Akron on a farm that his family homesteaded about 100 years ago. “My siblings and I are the fifth generation on that farm. My Dad, Vernon, grew wheat, feed, and raised cattle. I had pigs when I was in 4H, starting with a 4H “catch it” breeding project. I guess farming is in the blood for me.”
“I think I got my first gilt when I was 10 or 12. I had pigs through high school, then took a break for a while. We have had hogs now for about eight years. We currently have 14 sows, mostly registered Berkshires, with a few cross-bred sows for the freezer pigs. We are wanting to continue to expand the Berkshire herd, but are going to grow it without debt so it will be a slow growth strategy.”
Today, Chad’s sister lives on the original family farm. Chad followed a different career path after he graduated from college, but then the desire to make a living from farming returned in earnest.
Carolyn grew up in the Denver area until she was a sophomore in high school and moved to rural Colorado. “I am very unfamiliar as to most things farming, which may be of benefit to what Chad and I have going on now,” she says. “I sometimes act as a sounding board for the ‘does this make sense’ questions.”
Chad and Carolyn owned a place near Keenesburg, yet they wanted more land. “When we sold our place at Keenesburg, our requirements for another place were mature trees, more than 10 acres, and in the same school district,” explains Chad. “The place we have now is the one place that was on the market that fit that list, and it had the benefit of having been used for hog production 20 years ago.” It became home for Chad, Carolyn, their son Tim (age 13) and daughter Brooke (age 11).
Farming is both capital and labor intensive. It takes a good supply of money and an investment measured in long hours and sweat equity. The biggest challenge is capital and access to land and water. For Chad, access to capital was critical. “Carolyn having a good job has been a great help, but the cash flow we needed to get the first batch of pigs to market weight was significant. The Frankes did have access to more cash than they needed in the form of loans. “Our goal was to start with a minimum of debt, reducing our risk if our market changed. We’ve been very fortunate. We had access to the capital we needed to get started on our small scale and good enough jobs to keep cash flow up.”
When the chance to raise hogs for Whole Foods came up, Carolyn wondered what might be risky about the arrangement. “My answer was putting all of our eggs in one basket… or piglets in one trailer. I believe we still need to diversify, which I know Chad has plans of doing. I believe we need to do a better job of long-term planning. I think this is an area we can improve on tremendously.”
Advice for beginning farmers
Chad says anyone wanting to start in production agriculture will do well to find a niche market that has higher margins. “It’s impossible to think about starting with a commodity-type product like wheat or corn and make it worthwhile without massive debt, even if loans are available to the level needed. To compete against established operations on a small margin crop isn’t realistic for a beginner,” he says. This is especially true for start-up operations as compared to a generational transfer on an established family farm. “Find a small niche like organic or specialty crops that are in demand and that have a market that pays a good premium, or find an emerging market to build into. Our market is one that we have been able to start small in scale and grow as opportunities allow.”
Beginning farmers need to keep their operations tailored to their markets, continues Chad. “I believe now is actually a very good time for beginning farmers, especially in this area. We have so many premium niche markets available that it is possible to begin an operation on a comparatively small scale investment… if you have reasonable expectations and are willing to invest the sweat equity to build an operation and, if you choose, a market.”
Carolyn agrees, adding, “My advice for those wanting to get into farming is to have little or no debt going into the endeavor, as you will pick up quite a bit more when you get started.”
While hogs are the primary focus of their operation, the Frankes grow feed crops including hay and sudex for the pigs, which is one of the GAP requirements. “We keep one calf that we feed out for our freezer, and we have chickens that supply us with eggs, and Carolyn sells extras to people at her office.”
Active in community and ag leadership
Farming is a way of life as well as a way of making a living. “We love living in the country because even though we have few neighbors, they are true neighbors. Even if they live five miles away, we can count on them if we need to. In cities you may live 20 feet from a neighbor and never know their name,” he adds.
For Carolyn, there are values to be appreciated and lessons to be learned by living away from concrete and condos. “I believe that living on a farm better grounds us and our children on where our food really comes from, and what it really takes to put a meal on the table.”
Community involvement and taking on leadership roles is a tradition for the Frankes. Chad volunteers as a coach for the various activities in which their children participate. The Frankes are also active in the PTA at school and Chad recently was elected to the board of directors for the Colorado Pork Producer’s Council.
The Frankes are a Farmers Union family. “My dad was involved with RMFU from the 1980s farm crisis on. He spent many years on the board of directors, including being chairman for a number of years,” says Chad. “I started attending summer camps when I was in second grade, got my Torchbearer award, and was counselor at camps. Carolyn and I took part in the RMFU Fellows program a few years ago,” he adds. Today, Chad is president of Weld County Farmers Union. Carolyn is the Weld County Farmers Union youth leader.
Denver, CO, December 4, 2014 – The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) today announced its support for the proposed national monument designation of Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River, located in Chaffee County in Central Colorado. According to the agricultural group, the increased protection and higher profile of a national monument designation would benefit local economies, local agriculture and natural resources.
“By permanently protecting Browns Canyon as a national monument, we are protecting one of Colorado’s most precious natural resources while continuing with multiple uses, such as grazing, recreation and hunting,” said Bill Midcap, Director of External Affairs at RMFU. “The proposal to protect this beautiful place has been driven by local stakeholders and communities for more than 10 years now.”
The proposed Browns Canyon National Monument would uphold existing grazing rights, allow permit holders to pass on grazing rights to the next generation, and preserve access to stock tanks. It will not negatively impact ranchers or grazing.
Moreover, protections for the national public lands would protect the quality of the Arkansas River, which helps everyone, including agricultural producers.
Recognized as one of the most iconic and stunning landscapes in the country, Browns Canyon is national public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In the early 1990s, nearby communities and citizens began working with local businesses, agricultural producers, sportsmen and members of Congress to protect Browns Canyon against threats from development, industrial mining, and water pollution. To protect the area, its natural resources, public access and multiple uses for the long-term, Republican and Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation over the last decade.
Due to Congressional gridlock, these efforts have stalled. In November, Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet joined community groups in asking the President to protect Browns Canyon through use of the Antiquities Act. Since the Antiquities Act was passed by Congress in 1906, sixteen U.S. presidents, eight Republicans and eight Democrats, have used this authority to protect treasured public lands when Congress has failed to act.
The cooperative use of water for the common good helped build communities in the west long before the American Revolution, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs explained to delegates, members and guests attending Rocky Mountain Farmers Union’s annual convention. For 19 states and the Republic of Mexico, western water comes from Colorado. Of Colorado’s 158 rivers, all but two have their headwaters in the state. The only two that do not – the Green and the Cimarron – barley pass through Colorado at opposite corners of the state.
Colorado is limited in the amount of water it can “keep” and how much it has to guarantee to downstream states. This contractual or legal obligation becomes a significant problem during times of drought and low snowfall. Pacts and agreements have helped define how water will be allocated (and have kept lawyers employed), yet water laws are nothing new. For centuries, community ditches have been used to move water to where it is needed to grow food and support local populations. “This is the basis of civilization in America,” Justice Hobbs said, adding that Santa Fe has been around as a community for much longer than the earliest communities to have first flourished and then failed along the East Coast. These early western water ditches were organized and maintained according to understandings and enforcements in an era absent of federal agencies or attorneys.
Justice Hobbs kept his audience riveted during his two-hour presentation. Full coverage of his insights and recommendations will appear in RMFU’s December Union Farmer. During the convention, delegates re-elected Vice President Dale McCall, District V Director Ken Anderson, and District VI Director Jan Kochis. Delegates also introduced, debated, and adopted their 2015 policy. As a grassroots organization, Farmers Union policy is developed by farmers and ranchers.
Another convention speaker who considered the value of water to agriculture was Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. He reviewed statistical data collected over more than 100 years and said he has found there is no information to indicate whether precipitation is likely to increase or decrease in the years ahead. But the west is getting warmer as average annual high temperatures are ramping upward, he said, noting that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are also increasing at a significant and somewhat parallel rate.
John Salazar, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner, and Jason Fearneyhough, Wyoming Agriculture Director, shared their observations on agricultural policy and what the future may hold farmers and ranchers. Each said that farmers and ranchers contribute much in value to local and state economies.
Delegates and members heard from an intergenerational ag panel that looked at how to connect the enthusiasm of beginning farmers with the experience of established farmers. Beginning farmers said that developing mentoring opportunities is more important than any other actions that might be taken to encourage the next generation of farm and ranch families.
DENVER, Colo.) – In advance of the October 18 anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) today released a new video in support of the proposed Waters of the U.S. clean water rule. The video stars fifth-generation San Luis Valley rancher and farmer Alfonso Abeyta, and uses with permission of the band R.E.M., their song, “Cuyahoga,” about the Ohio river that caught fire (although not the first time) in 1969. The fire and subsequent Time magazine coverage motivated Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972.
“That’s why it puzzles me when some politicians in Washington don’t want to protect America’s streams and wetlands,” Abeyta says in the video. “You can’t grow food without water. You can’t live without water. Without water, nothing survives. I’m not thinking about myself; I’m thinking about my grandkids. I want them to be healthy and have clean water like I had growing up. I think it’s our job to protect it.”
R.E.M. is well-known for its leadership on clean water and countless environmental issues, so it is no surprise that the group authorized the use of its poignant song in this powerful PSA.
“This common-sense guidance protects clean water for our farms and families, and provides greater certainty for landowners,” said Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President and farmer Kent Peppler. “The White House should finalize the clean water rule.”
Approximately 117 million people – one in three Americans – get drinking water from public systems that rely on seasonal, rain-dependent, and headwater streams, which would be protected by the clean water rule. The RMFU video is being shared through social media including Facebook (Rocky Mountain Farmers Union) and Twitter (@RMFUnion), with policy-makers directly, and is available online at rmfu.org.
The public comment period for the clean water rule closes November 14th, 2014.
Denver, CO, July 9, 2014 — In an effort to dispel erroneous information about the proposed Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule and false perceptions that Washington, DC lobby groups speak for all farmers on the rule, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) is launching the “They Don’t Speak For Me” campaign today, by running advertisements in several Colorado newspapers.
The goal of the campaign is to make it clear that many farmers and ranchers in Colorado support the new common-sense protections for clean water as proposed by the EPA.
“It is critical that both Colorado senators and leadership at the USDA and EPA understand that ranchers and farmers need clean water to sustain our living, and appreciate balanced water policy. We believe the new rule targets both,” said RMFU’s Bill Midcap.
The half-page ads will run today 7/9 in the Pueblo Chieftain and Thursday 7/10 in the Aurora Sentinel.
To spotlight the broad agricultural support that the clean water rule enjoys, in the coming weeks RMFU will release a video of ranchers and farmers underscoring the importance of clean water and the new rule to their operations. It will include a list of farmers and ranchers available to talk with reporters about the new rule’s importance, based on their personal experiences.
The proposed Waters of the US rule targets ambiguities in the current Clean Water Act, such as the definition of “navigable waters,” that many agricultural producers have found arbitrary and confusing. The new rule also includes existing exemptions for agriculture, such as the use of ditches for irrigating crops.
By clarifying that seasonal and rain-dependent streams, rivers and wetlands that feed into downstream water are protected, there is a significantly less chance that toxic waste will wind up in the water we drink.
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to address water pollution issues, when a majority of U.S. waterways were too toxic for fishing, swimming or drinking. (Currently, one-third of U.S. waters are too toxic for fishing, swimming or drinking.) In 2001 and 2006 Supreme Court decisions limited the Clean Water Act to just waters deemed “navigable.”
The new rule would protect headwater streams and wetlands that feed directly into drinking-water resources. About 60 percent of stream miles in the U.S. only flow seasonally or after rain, but have a considerable impact on the downstream waters. And approximately 117 million people – one in three Americans – get drinking water from public systems that rely in part on these streams. Without the clarifications, these waters have been vulnerable to pollution and contamination.
RMFU President Kent Peppler, a fourth-generation farmer in Mead, Colorado, today denounced the House for cutting USDA funds to enforce new livestock marketing regulations.
“This is just the latest attempt to prevent enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act,” Peppler said. “By striking funding for GIPSA from the budget, Congress is reversing an important part of the 2008 farm bill. Consumers are tired of price-fixing on meat, small livestock operations are being destroyed by it, and the corporate ag lobbies are trying every trick in the book to keep business as usual. This is the same kind of legislative backstabbing we had to deal with on country of origin labeling. If they can’t kill the bill before it’s born, they try to starve it to death.”
After passing legislation to mandate country-of origin labeling so that consumers could tell where their food was coming from and producers could benefit from the increasing market for local foods, Congress failed to fund the program adequately for nearly six years to effectively undo the legislation, which corporate interests opposed. “So, here we go again,” Peppler said. “Corporate profits trump the best interests of consumers and that shrinking middle class, the farmers and ranchers who grow our food. The GIPSA rules are a Bill of Rights for family farmers and ranchers. Consumers and producers can’t let this one go.”
Delegates to the RMFU convention re-elected Kent Peppler of Mead, Colo. as president and Ken Macy, of Pine Bluffs, Wyo., as board member for Wyoming.
District 1 board member Monty Neibur and District 4 board member Charles Klaseen retired this year. Steve Nein, of Ovid, Colo., and John Field, of Montrose, were elected to fill their places on the board.