Getting Creative in Colorado: An Oral History of the State’s Oldest Organic Farm
June 6, 2016 | Abbie Stutzer
Monroe Organic Farms is Colorado’s oldest organic farm, and it has the rich history to prove it. Seedstock recently spoke with co-manager Jacquie Monroe to hear the story in her own words. Although Jacquie joined the farm’s family in 1984 when she married Jerry Monroe Jr. , she feels like she’s been farming alongside the Monroe’s since they got into the industry nearly a century ago.
The Monroes began farming in Kansas in the 1920s, but the family decided to move to Colorado to get away from the bad weather and tornadoes. Once settled, Lester, Jerry Monroe Sr.’s father, farmed a small place northwest of downtown Greeley.
“Jerry Sr. remembers selling produce door to door,” Jacquie Monroe says. “He remembers selling sweet corn, a baker’s dozen—13 ears for a penny—he was maybe 6 or 7 years old around 1933 or 1934.”
Development pushed Lester off his land in the late 1930s, but he recovered by purchasing the 105 acre farm the family operates today.
“They raised crops for cattle, picking corn, and vegetables they sold to local, small town grocery stores—there was one in every town,” Monroe says. “He also sold produce at Denargo Market in downtown Denver. It was shipped all over America.”
After years of operating the produce concern, the father and son team founded Monroe Dairy around 1950. At the same time, they continued to sell produce and raised crops for the dairy cows.
“They milked cows for around five or six years, maybe longer,” Monroe says.
After Jerry Sr. took over running the farm, he organized what we would today recognize as a kind of u-pick produce stand, a concept he came up with after a trip to a local store.
“One day, as he was delivering produce to a grocery store after getting out of the dairy business in downtown Greeley, he was stopped and asked if there was any way [customers] could purchase produce directly from the farm for cheaper than grocery store prices,” Monroe says.
“He changed the name to Monroe’s Homegrown Vegetables. He planted and advertised crops for sale when they were ready to pick in the classified section of the newspaper. He had a roadside stand, too. He ran this for over 35 years.”
Like his father before him, Jerry Jr. grew up farming alongside his dad. Luckily, his love for farming didn’t diminish as the years passed—after all, farming was his ticket to college.
“He was given an acre of land so he could grow watermelon and sell [the melons] to pay for college [while working] other odd jobs,” Monroe explains.
After earning his degree in business finance, Jerry Jr. worked for several companies. However, he eventually admitted to himself his true love was farming. He belonged on the farm.
It wasn’t long before Jerry Jr. was following in his innovative father’s footsteps by helping found the local farmers’ market in 1986.
“This was a new and ingenious way for small farms to sell produce and make some money without breaking the bank,” Monroe says. “In those days, it was so difficult to advertise or sell your produce. There just wasn’t that many choices for small farms!”
The Monroes kept growing by starting a CSA in 1993. This was no easy feat in the early ‘90s, when, according to Monroe, customers wanted nothing to do with organic produce.
“The term ‘organic’ had come out in the 1980s and the public was wary of produce raised this way,” she says.
The disparity between organic methods and consumer understanding of them meant the Monroes has to work extra hard to sell their product.
“I feel my whole career has been in education,” Monroe says. “We were trying to get out the meaning and benefits of organic while trying to sell a new way to purchase food—it was tough. I used to hear things like, ‘Oh, that’s organic, we don’t want that.’ I’m still not sure what they thought the problem was, I just know there was a huge segment of the population that wasn’t going for it.”
In addition to selling organic produce, it also was an uphill battle selling the CSA program to the public.
“People like to select their produce and they wouldn’t even see it until their bag showed up on delivery day,” Monroe says. “They had to take whatever the farm was producing that particular week of the year. So, shopping was something that had to be done after they got their produce from the CSA. It was fresher than the grocery store and tasted better, too.”
Monroe says growing sans chemicals was a family tradition established by Lester early on.
“When Lester started this farm and chemicals came into being after WWII, he had three teenage boys who worked the farm,” she says. “He wasn’t about to spend money on something new that he didn’t know how to use when he had all this free labor!
Aside from the convenience of a family farm crew, Lester was also concerned about having to keep his children out of locked chemical sheds and the effect that the evacuation periods the government requires for areas treated by farm chemicals would have on allowing people to freely access his u-pick operation.
By the time Jerry Jr. took over the farm in the late ’80s, there was no decision to make.
“This is how he learned to farm, this was the only way he wanted to do it,” she says. “We were still running the u-pick operation as well as attending farmers’ markets. Plus, the term organic had come into being and we wanted to use it. Our history made us so much more interesting! Jerry and I changed our name to reflect our views to Monroe Organic Farms, LLC.”
The farm got the word out about what “organic” meant and its many benefits.
“It was healthier for the farm, the people working the farm, and everyone eating the produce,” she adds. “We saw no reason to change the way we farmed. So, I started going around doing speeches at Earth Day events, Taste of Colorado events, ag showcases, EPA lunches, Slow Food organizations, Vegetarian Societies, etc., to explain why they should change their eating habits. I love public speaking and it was even more fun speaking about something you care so much about.”
Over the seasons that followed, the farm retained those hard-won customers and recruited many more. And because of the success of their 700-member CSA, the farm has developed a strong backbone of support that keeps the business sturdy despite the fluctuations inherent in the business.
“There are no guarantees you will receive any produce from year to year—this is the reality of farming,” Monroe says. “We live with this fact every time a storm rolls through the area. Members are supporting the farm in the good years and the bad.”
Currently, the farm grows vegetables and fruits, such as, green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, peppers, watermelon, muskmelon, honeydew, potatoes, onions, carrots, dried beans, fennel, celery root, and more.
Monroe says their farming practices haven’t changed much over the years. “When Jerry and I first started, we had about 15 farmable acres of ground,” she says.
“We hand planted plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries. We planted by seed everything else with a very old tractor that kept breaking down. By the time we were done with this chore, we went right into hand hoeing. By the time this was done, it was time to start harvesting.”
Today, the farmers have more equipment. And that’s a good thing because the farmers now plant around 65 acres of produce, which they move through the CSA, five farmers’ markets, and a few restaurants around town.
“It takes all three for us to really make a living,” she says. “We don’t want to waste food, so our members, retail shoppers, and chefs know we will not sort produce by color, shape, or size. We deliver/sell whatever Mother Nature is providing.”
Monroe says that typically half the produce potentially available to customers never makes it to the table because of appearances. Some of it that food is sorted out by distributors and other middle men, while some of it is never even harvested.
But even with pulling as much food as possible out of their fields, the farmers still work for minimum wage. Most of the profits go straight back into the business.
“By the time we will retire, we will have paid off all our debts, but have not saved much for retirement,” she says. “We figure we will need to work until 70 before we could afford to retire. Even that is questionable!”
Monroe adds that the challenges of running a farm go beyond saving for retirement.
“Every year the farm faces challenges you don’t really think about,” she says. “ou hear about bad weather and we feel bad for our neighbors. But the farmers have to live every day by the weather—it can make you or break you.”
The farm also has trouble finding farm workers.
“So many of them have gone to the oil and gas industry,” she says. “Jerry and I have bought more equipment over the years just to try to keep up with the work because we cannot replace the workers. No one wants to work this hard. We don’t make enough money to pay $15 an hour. The price of food has gone up in the grocery store, but the price we get paid at the farm level has not gone up that much, not enough to keep up with cost of production and labor.”
Although running the farm is difficult, the Monroes still enjoy running the business and have found a measure of success by being flexible and changing with the times.
“We have experimented with different kinds of farming and kept the things that made money or made our lives simpler,” Monroe says. “We will always work harder than the average person, but we enjoy what we do and feeding people is so rewarding. People are excited about knowing their farmer—a huge benefit of being a CSA member. Knowing your farmer and your farmer knowing you is what puts us a head above commercial farms.”
Monroe says that the future for their farm is bright. She enjoys training the family’s very own fourth generation farmer, Kyle, who’s expected to take over small portions of the farm over the next few years, and perhaps even take over all farm operations in five years.
And while she’s looking forward to seeing what Kyle will do with the farm in the future, she’s also quite proud of what she and her husband have achieved.
“[We’re] running a well-organized CSA while feeding people the best food the Eastern Plains can produce, and we do it in a way that works with Mother Nature (she can be grouchy), wildlife, and the farmers.”