Last September, Jake Takiff, a farmer in Hotchkiss, Colorado, posted a photo of himself on Instagram standing next to a dead sow tied up by its hind feet.
The post pays tribute to Fat Auntie’s prolific litters, how she “took good care of all the piglets and was a joy to be around”, how fond she was of belly rubs. It ends with Jake explaining why, after her long full life, he had killed her that morning: “We are not an animal sanctuary here. Every animal must contribute to the success of our farm.”
Jake, 32, does not particularly enjoy using social media, but you would not know that from the Cedar Springs farm’s Instagram account.
The account is used mostly to take orders, post photos of farm life, and connect Jake with other small farmers who take a similar holistic approach to what they do. It tells the story of a first-generation farming couple practising regenerative agriculture in western Colorado.
Regenerative farming prioritises soil health, biodiversity and ecological restoration, and forgoes most conventional industrial agriculture practices, including pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, or feeding pigs and cows genetically modified food such as corn and soy.
These methods can increase soil carbon and could help tackle the climate crisis, and they have sparked interest from outside the industry, with regenerative farming fast becoming a new buzzword.
“For the first time in maybe forever, you can be a farmer and be a celebrity for it,” says Jake. His brush with celebrity came last August, when a friend visited Cedar Springs to pick up a piglet boar for his herd and ended up filming Jake, talking in his easy-going, genuine manner about his environmentally and economically sustainable farm. The 24-minute YouTube video has had more than 100,000 views.
Lessons for life
Jake’s first and only job has been farming. In high school he met a farmer who took him in and taught him the basics: milking cows, working with pigs, fencing.
“I literally lived in her pig house,” says Jake, laughing.
He learned life skills he had not encountered in the traditional school system: accountability, responsibility, connection. “Farming inherently teaches you things that our culture doesn’t,” he says.
Jake settled in Colorado, where he ran a small but successful raw milk dairy farm with a herd of cows he bought using money saved from a landscaping job. Since 2017, he and his wife, Meghan, 31, have run Cedar Springs, a 16-hectare (40-acre) permaculture-focused farm and homestead.
Breaking into farming is notoriously difficult. Most young farmers come from farming families or have deep pockets to buy land. It took Jake 12 years to gather enough experience, credibility and grasp on the finances to start his enterprise.
“To make it as a pro farmer, you have to have a lot of irons in the fire,” says Jake. “I had to get people to help me; I didn’t have all the cash up front.”
The Takiffs are part of a growing movement, a new generation committed to net-positive farming.
For Jake, the mission is to find a better way to work with the land.
“Instead of, ‘How can I do this on the cheap, how can I get by’ – everything became, ‘How can I make this so it’s going to last the rest of my life? How can I do this so that my grandkids will enjoy it?’”
Jake uses a perennial system (cultivating crops that don’t need to be replanted each year) and rotational grazing. He started breeding cows and pigs and a variety of crops, put in trout ponds, and implemented intensive water management. Everything on the farm is geared toward being productive and profitable.
He invested in trees, planting 10,000. When they mature, these perennial crops – fruit, nuts and berries – will mostly be used for animal fodder, to avoid relying on grain.
“I feel like every livestock farmer has an addiction to grain and we’re weaning ourselves off it,” says Jake. “To do that, we have to wait for our trees to grow. In the long run, it’ll pay you back tenfold.”
But the conditions are not exactly ripe for growth.
“We’re dealing with mountain soil, alkaline clay soil, and almost no precipitation. So you have to engineer a system that’s going to be strong enough to survive in this climate. And if we succeed, this is going to be a really special place – because it’ll be a pioneer for regenerative farms in the high desert.”
Beyond trees, Jake’s main addiction is soil. “Once you become a soil farmer, you realise that without that soil – that soil microbiology, that living soil – we can’t do anything. It’s the base layer, the foundation.”
A commenter on Jake’s YouTube video puts it this way: “If a farmer is not obsessed with the quality of his soil then he’s merely a landowner. In an America that is besotted by convenience, processed, price above value: this guy is a rebel.”
‘The protein pays the bills’
Like any entrepreneur, Jake relies on multiple layers of income. He likens it to the forest he is growing, producing different crops that all play off each other.
“Farming is a relationship – to your food, with the earth. It’s a relationship in every way, shape and form. And it’s good to go into any relationship knowing that you could be doing it for a long time, you could be doing it for the rest of your life. It’s a huge commitment.”
The Takiffs are a few years from seeing the beginnings of the long-term return. In the meantime, Jake is focused on more immediate cashflow. High-quality products such as pastured pork, grass-fed beef and raw milk and butter fetch a good enough premium to pay the family’s bills and keep operations going.
“As the trees grow, the protein pays the bills,” says Jake.
On delivery days, Jake drives to Colorado’s metropolitan areas and even to California – San Diego and Los Angeles – to deliver bulk orders. He almost always sells out. Dr Bronner’s, the soap company, is a big customer; it began sourcing meat from Cedar Springs farm for its Burning Man camp a few years ago and has been a loyal buyer ever since.
Covid helped, as people saw empty supermarket shelves and started looking for farms where they could buy direct. But mid-pandemic, when the nearest Whole Foods – 85 miles away – restocked, Jake saw his sales drop off.
He does not expect everyone who found Cedar Springs during the pandemic to become regular customers. But he hopes people remember the power their food purchases can have.
“I do see it as being the future of farming,” says Jake of regenerative agriculture. “I’d like to see, in my lifetime, that commercial, industrial, herbicide-dependent type of agriculture go extinct. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. But if we don’t start making the changes on a ground level, it’ll definitely never happen.”
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