Signs of the changing seasons are everywhere on this 17-acre plot of farmland in Niwot, Colorado. Beds of brightly colored vegetables and flowers are almost entirely picked over. Nearby, a big blue barn sits filled to the brim with crates of squash, onions and turnips for the final market of the season. And just outside the barn doors, a stone patio has been decorated with corn stalks, pumpkins and string lights for an upcoming hoedown.
For young farmers Cody Jurbala and Melissa Ogilvie, both 31, this year’s harvest celebrations feel significantly different than in years prior.
The couple owns Speedwell Farm and Gardens, a small organic operation specializing in taco ingredients — lettuce, cilantro and tomatoes — for local restaurants. While Jurbala and Ogilvie have been growing food for more than five years, this was their first year doing so on a significant chunk of land.
Like many other young farmers, Jurbala and Ogilvie had trouble accessing affordable land when they first decided to start their business. Their journey to finding the land they are on now has been long and challenging. The farmland situation in the United States is not set up for young farmers to succeed, but this harvest season, the couple is celebrating the years of persistence, innovation and relationship-building that have gotten them where they are today.
America’s Farmland Problem
“To find a property like the one we’re sitting on right now is pretty challenging. Not just in Colorado, but all over the country,” Jurbala said. “The price of land is incredibly high for young people trying to get into farming.”
This is because the United States has a farmland problem. In the next few years, nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland will change hands as the oldest current generation of farmers enters retirement. The big question is: What happens to the land when those farmers retire? If the farmer’s children decide not to stay on the land, the most likely scenario is that it will be sold to non-operators — non-farmers, real estate developers or large agricultural corporations who don’t directly manage the land themselves.
The USDA estimates that 30% of U.S. farmland is currently owned by non-operators, but in some states (like Iowa) that number is even higher. Young farmers looking for land have trouble competing with these wealthier landowners for access, and the amount of available, affordable land is scarce.
As the climate crisis intensifies, who owns the land and how they farm it is critical. The next generation of farmers is more interested than the last in sustainable farming methods, and getting land into their hands could help relieve some of the pressure our food system places on the environment.
Sensing the urgency of this issue, organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition have doubled down on policy efforts to pass farmland on to the next generation. But policy change takes time. Some farmers — like Jurbala and Ogilvie — have taken matters into their own hands.
After meeting at a music festival in 2012, the couple quickly bonded over common interests in foraging, herbalism and hiking. “It was a pretty instant connection for both of us,” Ogilvie said. They moved in together soon after, and their passion for food, nature and the environment quickly developed into a shared desire to own and manage their own farm.
Jurbala decided to get trained up, and started interning at nearby Pachamama Farm, an organic vegetable operation in Longmont. He also took online courses in profitable urban farming on YouTube, many of which offered several solutions to the couple’s biggest challenge — access to affordable land.
They started with the most approachable solution: leasing their neighbors’ backyards. “We literally opened up Google Earth and scouted our neighborhood for all of the yards that were open and flat,” Ogilvie said. “Then we drove around, knocked on doors and left notes asking if we could farm in people’s yards.”
To their surprise, two neighbors and Ogilvie’s mother agreed to the couple’s proposition. In exchange for the use of their property, Jurbala and Ogilvie would provide each homeowner with a weekly supply of their produce. The system worked for three years, allowing the couple to experiment with different practices, hone their farming skills and begin creating a market for their crops. Their first major buyer was Seeds, a small farm-to-table café located inside the Boulder Public Library — at that point, Speedwell Farm and Gardens was officially in business.
“We were just so passionate about what we were doing back then. I mean, it wasn’t paying our bills in the slightest,” Jurbala said. “But it was fun. And we could see it was the first stepping stone towards getting a larger property and continuing to do what we wanted to do.”
But leasing backyards came with its fair share of challenges. Both Jurbala and Ogilvie had to maintain off-farm jobs to make ends meet. And every year, the couple had to move to different yards. As it turned out, most people were willing to let them try growing food for a year, but they would never get hooked on it — decks, patios and other home projects frequently reclaimed yard space. Redoing entire farm set-ups each year was too much work to be sustainable for Speedwell.
In their fourth year of farming, Jurbala decided to take a chance on an empty quarter-acre field he frequently drove past on the way to work. He sent an email to the landowner and asked if Speedwell might be able to use the land. To his surprise, the landowner called back the next day and enthusiastically agreed. For the next few months, the couple finally got to experiment on a larger scale than the backyards. Then Covid hit.
At the time, Speedwell was exclusively selling to restaurants — almost all of which shut down over the course of a weekend. Jurbala and Ogilvie had to create new markets, and fast. After some brainstorming, they decided to start a home delivery CSA, as well as a weekly outdoor pop-up market outside Moxie Bread Co. in North Boulder.
For a few months, it looked as if they were going to remain afloat through the worst of the pandemic. Then, a new landowner came in and bought the property and its water rights, and immediately kicked Jurbala and Ogilvie off the land.
Treehouse Farm Collective
A month after losing their farmland, a friend called the couple and suggested they check out an open, 17-acre field in Niwot. The owners were looking for agricultural proposals to find a new tenant for the property. Jurbala and Ogilvie wanted to give it a shot, but 17 acres was more than they could manage on their own.
Through friends in the local farming community, they got in contact with some of the other young farmers who were submitting proposals. One of them was Helen Skiba — owner and manager of Farmette Flowers, an organic wedding flower business. Another was Matt Kuebbing, an organic vegetable farmer who grows produce for local food banks. Together, the four farmers thought that if they joined together, they might have a better shot at obtaining the lease (and affording the rent).
“It worked out well that everyone had different enterprises too,” Ogilvie said. “We do vegetables, Helen does flowers, Matt does the food bank. No one would be stepping on anyone’s toes, business-wise.”
The group wrote a proposal as Treehouse Farm Collective, LLC. In mid-January, they were awarded the lease, and everyone immediately got to work. They cleaned up the property as a team, then allocated acreage to each farmer. A little over an acre went to Speedwell Farm and Gardens — the precise amount that Jurbala and Ogilvie had always been striving for.
Today, each member of the collective separately conducts the day-to-day tasks on their portion of the farm. If one farmer has a larger job to tackle, the others will pitch in and help. Utility bills, water and the cost of tools are split amongst the collective as well.
And unexpectedly, but perhaps most importantly, each member of the collective supports each other emotionally, as friends and fellow young farmers. Climate change, rural isolation, fluctuating commodity prices and debt — all inherent to farmwork — can have a significant impact on farmers’ mental health. In fact, the suicide rate among farmers, ranchers and agriculture workers in the United States is, on average, 3.5 times that of the general population. Having farming friends close by who understand and relate to daily struggles can make a big difference.
“We’ve all loved the community feel of this set up,” said Ogilvie. “Farming is not easy work, and some days are hard. It’s really nice to be able to lean on each other occasionally for the extra support.”
The collective is a rare land ownership model, but it just might be the solution that America’s next generation of farmers are looking for. It has certainly worked for Jurbala and Ogilvie so far. This year’s harvest marks their first full year on a single plot of land. It’s also the first year that neither have had to work off-farm jobs.
In 2021, Speedwell supplied eight local restaurants, grew their CSA program and continued their Saturday pop-up at Moxie Bread Co. Now that they have a healthy foundation of clients, they’re looking to branch out to new markets — perhaps Boulder Valley School District, to get more local produce to kids. Future plans on the farm include planting a cider apple orchard, and perhaps making more space for events.
If the last five years have taught this couple anything, it’s that nothing in farming is certain, but anything is possible. They’re hoping — along with the other collective members — that this piece of land is their final farm home.
Correction (Dec. 13): An earlier caption to this article’s leading image incorrectly identified those pictured as Cody Jurbala and Melissa Ogilvie.