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Part-time farms booming in El Paso County

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP)--A rising number of El Paso County residents have gone country--some looking for amber waves of grain and others aiming to save a few greenbacks.

They're buying small farms and raising a few cows, or leasing pasture for grazing, or putting up a chicken coop. Many of them aren't making much money from it, though, so weekend and evening farmers sometimes hold day jobs in the city.

The number of farms in El Paso County increased 30 percent from 2002 to 2007, according to figures released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm operations in the county went from 1,175 to 1,529. They're mostly spread over the plains and bluffs that stretch out east of Colorado Springs.

Part of the attraction is quiet rural living, but that's not all there is to it, especially for the newer farmers.

"They're doing this to keep their agriculture status for tax purposes," said Robert Cordova, an El Paso County rancher for 40 years who raises beef cows and grows hay.

He's part of a shrinking population whose main business is farming.

Tax laws grant an "immense" benefit to properties designated as agricultural, said El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman. Most property is appraised for tax purposes based on the sales of similar properties. But the value for agriculture land is based on commodity prices for whatever product is produced there. The result is a 40-acre tract that might otherwise be worth $50,000 comes in for tax purposes at a value closer to $1,500, Lowderman said.

To be designated as agricultural land, a property owner has to show three years of profit-motivated business. The Assessor's Office monitors compliance after that. For the Census of Agriculture, a farm is any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been.

The median size of farms in El Paso County fell from 160 acres in 2002 to 70 acres in 2007. In addition, while 54 percent of farmers had farming as their main occupation in 2002, just 34 percent did in 2007.

Among the biggest changes in El Paso County agriculture, hog farming nearly disappeared from 2002 to 2007, the census figures show. The inventory of hogs and pigs went from 5,763 to 405. Greg Langer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said some people abandoned hogs because they stink and they're a hassle to care for.

"People just don't perceive hogs very well anymore," he said. "There's no real thrill in raising hogs."

Agriculture in El Paso County is small potatoes compared to many areas. Weld County in northern Colorado, for example, produced $1.5 billion worth of agricultural products in 2007, while El Paso County produced $39 million.

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