Bruce Talbott's son, Charles, left the Marine Corps with aspirations of returning to the family farm and cracking the Colorado brewing scene. The only problem the elder Talbott saw was that microbreweries weren't exactly rare in Colorado.
After some discussion, Charles decided he could brew hard cider rather than beer. Four years later, Talbott's Cider Co. looks to have its best year yet with Charles and brother, Joe, hoping to grow the company to the point where it can provide steady supplemental income for the family business.
"We never want to take away from (Talbott Farms), but just to add," Joe, 22, said.
About two miles away at Clark Family Orchards, would-be wedding parties were regularly turned away by Dennis Clark for lack of space at his scenic Palisade farm. It wasn't until his daughters returned to the Grand Valley looking to contribute that the family decided to invest in a new event center near the Colorado River. The center can host up to 75 events annually and can be the wedding spot so many have asked for over the years. Clark's two daughters, Mackenzie Schmalz and Courtney Clark, will run the business, which hosted its first wedding June 22.
"Seeing that it was lacking kind of gave us that idea to do the wedding venue," Schmalz said. "Courtney and I have always really liked the wedding industry."
Throughout the region, farmers are looking for ways to diversify their business in order to protect themselves against poor harvest years, embrace agro-tourism and, as with the Talbott and Clark families, find ways to bring the next generation into the business.
The Talbotts invested just shy of $1 million to get the cidery up and running, financing some of the equipment needed. They saved some money by taking on some of the construction of an outdoor patio area.
"It's a significant capital investment," Bruce Talbott said. "We had some good peach years and that helped us."
For Bruce and his three brothers, getting into the cidery business may have been costly, but for a family that has about a century of roots on the Western Slope, it's certainly not the first time they have diversified.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, apples were the primary crop at Talbott Farms. But when the industry changed and became dominated domestically by states such as Washington and Michigan, the farm upped its peach production and later entered into grape growing for local wineries.
Today, the farm is one of the largest peach growers in the Grand Valley and supplies grapes to about 20 wineries. The family recently started to make its own wine with some of the excess crop.
"It shores up the value of grapes if we can make wine," Bruce said. "It gives us more financial options and is a more profitable way to play the game."
Joe Talbott grew up on the family farm but wasn't sure what he wanted to do once he finished school. He spent a few years traveling around the world to places such as South America, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia, spending time between trips working on the farm.
But when his brother started the cidery, he knew he wanted to be part of that as soon as he turned 21.
"It was an opportunity to start something fresh and new and watch it grow," he said. "That was cool."
Joe now handles much of the marketing and promotion for the cidery, which is poised to turn a profit for the first time in its three years of production. The cider is available in liquor stores around the state and could soon be found outside Colorado. In the years to come, he hopes the cidery will complement the farm instead of depending on it.
"The main business is feeding the hard cidery," he said. "I would like that to be more cohesive."
Bruce hopes for the same and said the business is in his sons' hands.
"It's their deal. We're underwriting it and very involved, but they are pretty much running that program," he said. "It's very healthy and an obvious niche for them."
Dennis Clark remembers some of his leanest years at Clark's Family Orchards. At least once, he and his brothers had to get part-time construction jobs after late freezes destroyed the peach crop for the year.
Despite the large investment needed to build a new 15,000-square-foot event venue, Clark believes his family's new venture will be a big success and bring in money throughout the year.
"We've been looking at this for a while and decided it was the time to dive in," Clark said.
Courtney, Clark's youngest daughter who also works as a nurse at St. Mary's Medical Center, thinks the center will be a big boost to the family business.
"It gives us more diversity to do something that can be year-round and not dependent on the weather," she said.
"Farming is hard. It can be good, but the income can be up and down. I hope this would give us a little stability throughout," he said. "We have six weeks to two months to bring in income when we're in the fruit business. It helps stabilize our situation for years to come."
OTHER WAYS TO DIVERSIFY
Getting the next generation of farmers and ranchers into the industry is just one method Colorado farms are using to diversify. Some have embraced working with local customers instead of trying to sell at a larger scale in the commercial industry. Others have focused more on organic farming and several have taken advantage of the farm-to-table trends and embraced agro-tourism.
Bruce Talbott has noticed.
"A lot of people would like something that is home," Bruce Talbott said. "Arts and crafts live off of that. Local tourism tries to optimize that and agro-tourism and wineries are part of that. It's great to say you use Colorado fruit and people promote that when they do."
Dawn Thilmany, outreach coordinator and associate department head for Colorado State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, agrees with that sentiment and said consumers are increasingly interested in the farm-to-table model.
"A lot of people want to know where their food is coming from, or go visit," Thilmany said. "I think 15-20% of consumers have a strong interest in buying and supporting local agriculture. There's a high level of that activity in Colorado."
There are also more opportunities for farmers to diversify their business and receive help through grants, pilot programs and workshops through the state, federal government or schools such as CSU.
Some of the grants, Thilmany said, are a way for a farm to "dip their toe in" a new industry without taking on too much of a financial burden early on.
"It's fun to see some producers being entrepreneurial," she said.
Becca Jablonski, assistant professor and food systems extension economist at CSU, said much of the public has changed their shopping habits as many look to "buy local."
"There's a particular movement where we see farms and ranches taking advantage of consumer demand," she said. "There's a shift in how people shop and producers are responding to that."
Jablonski said the commercial agriculture industry is geared toward big producers as there are more transaction costs to buy from a small farmer in some cases.
"As a result, it becomes more challenging for niche producers to access that market," she said. "They have to look for opportunities to diversify or access a niche market where they will get a premium."
Some smaller farms also mixed up their sales base so as to not be too dependent on any particular client or market. But mostly, they are still growing the same products.
Jablonski noted the importance of diversifying markets rather than just adding products to grow.
"Producers too highly diversified (in product) were less likely to become more profitable," Jablonski said. "Producers that increase markets were more likely to grow."
Colorado has jumped into the top 10 in the country in certified organic farm acres and organic farm sales, ranking eighth and ninth, respectively. The number of organic farms and acreage both increased more than 10% between 2015 and 2016, according to a 2016 certified organic survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One Colorado farm that shifted its focus to organic products is Ela Family Farms, a fourth-generation farm in Hotchkiss.
Prior to 2000, the fruit farm sold most of its products to large grocers. Today, the farm does most of its sales at farmers markets primarily on the Front Range, makes fruit products in its commercial kitchen and sells community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships. The farm does some wholesale selling to Whole Foods.
"We've chosen to diversify on the market channels so we're not reliant on one channel for our income," said Steve Ela, operations manager and partner at the 100-acre farm.
Ela said it was important for his farm to get out of the commercial market because it became a race to sell at a low price, instead of a higher price, and the farm had a hard time keeping up with the big producers. Now, Ela has more control over his prices.
In going organic, the commercial kitchen has helped Ela reduce waste and last year the farm reached its goal of zero food waste.
The farm's commercial kitchen opened in 2006. A year later, the farm started offering CSAs in which customers buy shares. Each week shareholders receive a batch of whatever fruit is ripe at that time. Ela said he delivers 500 to 600 shares per week.
If there is a lean season, Ela said his first priority is to fill CSA obligations before selling anything wholesale or at a farmers market.
The farm switched its focus from commercial selling to local sales when the apple industry changed drastically and the U.S. became oversupplied from places such as Washington, which were not exporting as many apples overseas because of the global market.
Prices crashed, and although they recovered, Ela said his apples basically lost most of their value overnight.
"I guess it made us realize that we are a small industry in Colorado," he said. "We always kind of operate on the margin. We didn't want something happening in Washington, Chile or Taiwan to affect our ability to survive."
Another avenue Ela has worked in, even if just slightly, is agro-tourism. His farm hosts an annual family dinner and farm tour to give people a chance to see where some of their food originates.
In Palisade, Clark Family Orchards has offered wagon rides to tour the farm for the past few years.
While neither of these are large money-makers for either family, agro-tourism is a rapidly growing industry across the state.
In Colorado, the state added about 200 farms that are involved with agro-tourism between 2012 and 2017 and the industry's revenue grew by nearly $35 million over that time, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Agro-tourism is a great way to diversify a business and it creates additional enterprises for family members," said Martha Sullins, a Front Range regional specialist with CSU Extension. "We see a lot of that."
Mesa County agro-tourism numbers did not show the same amount of growth as the state as a whole with reduction in the number of farms and revenue.
However, non-farm businesses in Palisade often see a boost from visitors to the area's wine country and during peach season. Yet much of that does not register as agro-tourism.
Sullins attributed the boom in the agro-tourism to that same local food movement that farms such as Ela's and Talbott's have turned to recently. Some agricultural areas that have become popular tourist destinations have taken advantage of this and boosted their offerings. Some do this through paid tours while others offer a bed-and-breakfast business to supplement the farm.
"It gives people a place to be while they go and visit in the area," Sullins said.
INVOLVING THE YOUTH
It's become a common refrain in the farm industry that the younger generation isn't as interested in farming as the one before it.
Bruce Talbott heard it when he was younger, as did Dennis Clark, but their generation seemed to take to it.
"I don't think it is for everybody, but there are young kids who want to farm," Clark said.
Farmers have aged in Colorado, however, as the 2017 census shows that about 92% of Colorado farmers are age 35 or older. Nearly 34% are age 65 or older. The percentages in Mesa County are similar.
Joe Talbott believes the farming industry may change over time. Adding fermented or farm-to-table options might be a way to bring new customers to local farms and, at the same time, keep younger farmers involved in the family business.
"We'll see what happens. Farming will probably change, but it will continue," he said. "We have to eat."