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High and Dry

Even in the best of times, farmers and developers fight for Colorado's water. And this summer's drought is far from the best of times.

Inside, the house appears much like it must have when the first farm family occupied it some seventy years ago -- except for the computer sitting on a wooden table in the dining room. Outside, a small fenced-in backyard is cluttered with children's toys. Thirty feet away, across the dirt driveway, stands row after row of corn, the stalks six feet high and heavy with golden-tasseled ears.

The sight of the toys and the cornfields reminds Rasmussen of those people who suggest that he and other farmers are careless with their chemicals -- as though he would ever do anything to endanger his children. But these days, such unfounded criticism is just part of being a farmer in Boulder County, an area undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis from farmland to gentrified suburbia.

When Rasmussen was growing up on his father's farm several miles to the south and west, Highway 287 was just a two-lane country road that ran past farms like this one for mile after mile. There was so little traffic on the side roads back then that a farmer and his children might not see another car as they drove the tractor to the fields.

The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.

This morning, cars and trucks blast by one after another, riding each other's bumpers as they rush past golden fields of Coors malting barley waiting to be cut, the stands of corn and one-ton bales of hay ready for shipment to the cattle feedlots east of Greeley. While farmland still dominates the scenery, there is less and less space between the housing developments and industrial parks on the outskirts of Boulder and Longmont and Loveland. Along this corridor, Highway 287 is being expanded into a four-lane thoroughfare.

As the county's population moves out into the country, farmers often find themselves in conflict with their new neighbors. Rasmussen recalls one time when a woman stopped to watch a crop duster at work. When a little overspray landed on her car, the woman was irate -- even though the chemical was sulfa, harmless to both her person and her car's paint. "She wouldn't accept the pilot's apology or offer to clean the car," he says. "Instead she took him to court, I guess to make an example of him."

Newcomers may like the idea of living in farm country, but they don't understand it -- or don't care to. They call and complain when farmers burn the dead grasses and other debris in irrigation ditches, although state water law requires water users to keep the ditches free and clear. They sneer at the use of herbicides and pesticides and accuse farmers of being careless with the chemicals, when simple economics require farmers to use as little as possible. "And we're the ones who live here," Rasmussen points out. "My kids play out there."

Although Rasmussen tries to take his farm machinery to the fields when traffic is light, he'll invariably get "the ol' one-finger salute" from some cranky motorist in a hurry. "What cracks me up is that they're probably rushing to get to a restaurant to eat," he says, "and they have no idea that food may have come from some guy like the one they just flipped off." He forces a laugh, but the smile quickly fades.

He represents the third generation of Rasmussens to farm in the St. Vrain Valley. His grandfather came from Iowa in 1902. "He had some sort of lung problems and moved here for his health," Rasmussen says. The old man worked for years as a farmhand, he adds, pointing to two dilapidated sheds off in the distance, on another man's property. "He used to sleep in one of those when he was working on this farm."

Rasmussen grew up on the farm his grandfather had built. It was a good life for a child, one filled with farm-kid activities such as 4-H, raising prize animals to be auctioned off at the county or state fair. That was a hard lesson when he was young, but it's part of the cycle of life that every farmer learns.

And no lesson was more important than learning about water. Rasmussen saw this firsthand when he went with his father and uncle to meet a train bringing in a load of sheep. The poor animals had been stuck in a car without water; some were no longer capable of standing. He'd always remember his uncle cutting the lid of a soda can to fetch water for the traumatized animals and how it seemed to bring them back from death's door. His earliest memories of life on the farm are of going with his father to irrigate the fields, watching the cool water run into the rows of cracked and thirsty ground. He could almost hear the corn drinking.

"We were just little shavers," he says. "But I was taught an appreciation for water." Without water, crops didn't grow. Without crops, the family could not survive. Waste water in June and you'd regret it when the river commissioner cut off your ditch in late summer, saying you'd used your allotment.

Rasmussen grew up wanting to be a farmer. He could imagine no other life, partly because he had known no other life. But his father insisted that he go to college. Education wasn't going to hurt him, he said; farming was changing, getting more sophisticated, and farmers had to know about computers and spreadsheets.

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