A conversation with Colorado farmer Jerry Monroe as interviewed by Michael Weiss.
Jerry (Gerald) Monroe, 59, is a third-generation farmer and owner of Monroe Organic Farms in Kersey, CO. Jerry’s grandfather bought the farm in 1936 and later Jerry expanded it to its current 200 acres. It is the oldest organic farm in Colorado, according to Jerry.
Jerry didn’t plan to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s steps and become a farmer. He went to college, got a degree in business, and then worked in real estate management. However, he didn’t care for the job and returned to the farm. He plans to actively run the farm another 2-3 years and then turn it over to his only son, Kyle. He won’t retire to a life of leisure though. He will continue farming alfalfa since it is easier to grow.
I initially met Jerry in June of this year when I started working on the farm one day per week. We talked a few times about how the season was going and other issues, such as water rights. I decided to interview him so I could hear more about these issues. Also, storytelling is currently the preferred approach to covering climate change. I cannot think of a better person’s story to tell than a farmer, someone in close contact with the earth and experiencing the changing climate firsthand.
We talked in the living room of the family farmhouse on the last day in September.
Q: What is the family history of the farm?
A: My grandfather sold produce at the farm and in grocery stores when he started farming in 1936. My dad and two uncles worked the farm and a dairy, but they eventually sold the dairy. My dad started a u-pick service at the farm. Jacquie (his wife) and I took over the farm in the mid ‘80s. We started going to farmers markets. We started the CSA [community supported agriculture] in 1993. It is the second oldest CSA in Colorado.
Q: Why did your family decide to be organic farmers?
A: My grandfather felt that chemicals were too expensive. My dad didn’t want to use them. I decided to continue the practice.
Q: How has farming changed for you?
A: My change is all response from the customer. When Jacquie and I took over the farm, many people didn’t know about organic. Most people didn’t know what organic was, much less CSA. So it was a huge education, in that. The organic movement has caught on, the local movement has caught on. I never thought I would ever see that in my lifetime. Something else has changed. People would buy 100 pounds of potatoes. They would say, I am going to can. Now I sell a little basket for two to three times as much as I would sell 100 pounds of potatoes. All of that has changed, dramatically.
Q: How would you sum up this year?
A: Overall, it was below average. But based on what happened in May, it was better than expected. The initial crops we planted weren’t flooded, they were drowned. We had to replant acres of crops. As far as water, it was among the top five in my lifetime. We had free water almost the entire season [what he gets from his water rights].
Q: What changes have you seen in the weather?
A: We farm 6 weeks to 2 months longer. Our season is longer than it used to be because it’s warmer. I’m out there every day. Every year is so different. Like this year, we had so much rain at the beginning and it just kept raining. We lost acres of crops. We had a blizzard in the middle of May. It was a huge challenge at the beginning.
This summer, I will say, was average. It wasn’t a hot summer. What was nice was September. This is one of the warmest Septembers I can remember. This is like the perfect September for me because it’s warmer, it’s dry, and it didn’t freeze. Some years it freezes September 15th or September 20th. Every week that it doesn’t freeze, we still have those crops [melons, beans, tomatoes, peppers].
I plant until the end of September, the first of October. If it doesn’t freeze in a couple of weeks, we’re going to have more sweet corn. That’s a huge gamble because a lot of times it’s going to freeze before the middle or third week in October.
But it’s definitely warmer. Overall it is. Some years it’s a really hot summer. Storm events, it seems like they are all or nothing. You don’t get rain for a long time, but when you get it, it’s a lot. Everything is more intense. It can hail in 5 minutes, and then I can lose 2-300 thousand dollars in 5 minutes.
Q: How have you adapted to those changes?
A: When I started, I was told I couldn’t raise sweet potatoes because of the weather. But now I do. I can plant melons three times a year while my dad could only plant them once. Some tomato and melon varieties couldn’t be grown due to fewer heat temperature days. Also, I’ll gamble planting late in the season, hoping it doesn’t freeze.
Q: Has being an organic farm helped or hindered adapting to change?
A: Being organic hasn’t made a difference regarding the climate.
Q: A study released earlier this year concluded the following:
Colorado has seen steady increases in average temperatures and is projected to continue to warm by mid-century, with more warming in summer than in winter. Climate models currently project no clear trend in precipitation other than continued inter-seasonal and interannual variability. Rising summer temperatures, however, would result in greater frequency and severity of drought, and may lead to reduced streamflow as evaporation rates rise. There is no evidence yet that summertime thunderstorms would change in frequency or severity.
What do you think when you hear that?
A: Well, I believe, I believe it. Generally speaking, it’s warmer now. We go for a long time without moisture. When we get it, we get a lot at once. Like this spring, we got almost the whole annual average moisture level in like a month and a half.
Q: How do these changes make you feel?
A: It just makes you aware. We’re okay, you’re okay. But it’s the next one or two or three generations down from us, they are going to pay the price on a lot of stuff.
Q: Is there anything else you would like me to know about?
A: We just should all conserve on everything that we use. Respect the environment. The next generations, it’s going to be really hard, their life is going to dramatically change.