As Nevada farmers retire, few taking their place as number of farms continues to shrink
For more than 50 years, Rick and B. Ann Lattin operated Lattin Farms in Fallon, a 400-acre farm that started in 1909. But this year, the Lattins, both in their late 70s, laid down their tools, leased their land and stepped back from agricultural production.
Their retirement marks the end of an era for the Fallon agricultural community. It also highlights a larger trend in Nevada agriculture — the state’s farmers are aging without a steady stream of young farmers stepping in to replace them, and the number of small-to-medium-sized growers is declining. Compounding the problem, farmland in the state — as in much of the West — is being developed into industrial spaces and housing.
According to those in the industry, recent incidents like the pandemic that crippled the supply chain and left grocery stores with barren shelves show that the state needs more, not less, growers. Nevada’s farmers and ranchers had an economic output of nearly $788 million in 2020, but little of that stayed in the state. Nationally, a 2003 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that conventionally grown food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it is purchased.
Transporting food that far creates a sizable environmental footprint and also weakens the state’s food security instead of building a resilient, in-state system.
But small family farms, once a staple of farmer markets, roadside produce stands and suppliers of co-ops, are becoming a dying breed. And fewer people are stepping in to fill their shoes.
“As legacy producers retire, our nation needs the next generation of producers to take on the important business of providing food, feed, fuel and fiber for a growing population,” said Amber Sallaberry, co-founder of The Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno.
Working hard for little in return
About half of Nevada’s roughly 3,300 farms are less than 50 acres. A quarter of them are even smaller, just 10 acres or less.
Dispersed across the state, an overwhelming majority of the state’s farms — more than 2,600 — are individual or family operations, and roughly a third of them earn less than $2,500 in profits per year.
“For most small farms, you have people who have to have an off-farm job in order to make a living. Then you fit your farming operations into your spare time, so to speak,” said Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau. “It’s a hard way to make a living. You’re the person doing the growing as well as the marketing as well as the accounting as well as everything else that needs to be done, and that’s a lot to have on your plate.”
The Lattins took over the family farm in 1972. Rick’s work for the state in vocational rehabilitation let the family grow alfalfa and an array of produce, including Fallon’s famed cantaloupes, without financial worry, B. Ann said.
“I don’t know I could have done this without knowing we had the security of another income,” she said. “If my family had to depend on the money we took off the farm to survive, I would have been pretty worried. It was more of a big hobby.
“It’s really hard to make a living now off a midsized farm. You either need to be really small so you don’t have to hire out the labor, or really big where you can afford the equipment. We were kind of in the middle.”
Over the years, they farmed anywhere from 200 to 400 acres of family land. But now, their five kids each have professional careers and don’t have an interest in taking over the business.
“They saw how hard we worked for how little return we got,” B. Ann said. “They liked living on the farm and don’t want to get rid of the farm, but they’re all professionals.”
They aren’t alone.
The fastest growing age group for farmers in the state is those 55 to 74. Between 2012 and 2017, only 17 percent of Churchill County farms were owned by someone 35 or younger. In Washoe County, just 8.5 percent were owned by someone 35 or younger, and in Clark County, just 1.6 percent.
When farmers such as the Lattins retire, it’s a net loss for Nevada and the local food industry, said Rob Holley, who raises organic meat and vegetables at Holley Family Farms in Dayton.
“From a personal aspect, losing Mr. Lattin to retirement is profoundly sad,” he said. “From a production standpoint, the future of that land remains to be seen. That’s one of the things I look at when someone leaves the industry — what happens to their land? Does it end up in a subdivision? Does it end up fallow?”
Between 2001 and 2016, America lost about 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland per day, according to the American Farmland Trust.
With current land use trajectories, the trust estimates that close to 156,000 acres of Nevada’s farmland and rangeland will be converted to urban and low-density housing by 2040, including 102,000 acres in Clark County and 23,000 acres in Washoe County.
The Lattins considered selling their land or subdividing it into lots for their children. They decided they wanted to see the land stay in production and instead leased it out to longtime employees of the farm.
Home Feeds Nevada
In 2021, Nevada lawmakers passed SB370, the Home Feeds Nevada Agriculture Food Purchase Program, to create opportunities for state producers. Through the program, the state purchases food from Nevada growers and processors and redistributes it through local food banks.
The program has been a lifesaver for Rodney Mehring, owner of the 10-acre Blue Lizard Farm in Lincoln County.
For a while, Mehring sold the produce grown in his 18 hoop houses and five greenhouses at farmers markets, then directly to MGM Resorts in Las Vegas. He spent about $20,000 per year transporting the produce grown on his farm to Las Vegas each week. He switched to growing hemp, but the market crashed during the pandemic.
Mehring, 55, now sells tomatoes, beets, greens and other produce to Home Feeds Nevada, which covers transportation costs for his food. Without the program, he would be out of business, he said.
“In retrospect, knowing what I know now, 10 years ago I wouldn’t have started the farm,” he said. “I love what I do, but I’m too far away from my market. My ability to sell locally is limited.”
Like the Lattins, his five kids don’t have any interest in following in his footsteps.
“If a young person sits down and looks at the numbers and barriers, they are big barriers and the numbers don’t work out,” he said. He often tells his employees that he loves what he does, but that they make more than him.
“We have to find a way to make these farms more than just a break-even operation,” he said. “We’ve got to make them profitable so that people can make a living and raise a family and farm.”
Paying attention to our food supply
Efforts are being made to draw in new growers.
It’s funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and covers topics such growing in the desert, creating a business plan, accounting and marketing, while also offering hands-on instruction at the university and at partner farms — including Holley’s in Dayton.
UNR's Cooperative Extension is offering a beginner farmer rancher program in partnership with the Nevada Farm Bureau.
But such efforts are stemming what might be an inevitable decline.
Today, there are about 800 fewer farms in the state than there were in 2012 — a roughly 19 percent decrease. And when the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases new census data for each state in early 2024, Busselman expects to see the number of small and medium farms in the state continue to decrease.
“We need to pay attention to our food supply and who is producing it and making sure they’re available to continue doing that,” he said.