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.

So Rasmussen went on to Adams State College in Alamosa, itself an agricultural community, as a business major. For a time he thought he might follow a career other than what his father and grandfather before him had pursued -- but when he heard there was land in the area where he'd grown up that could be leased for a good price, he knew that was the only place he wanted to be. He moved back home, bringing along his new wife, Sherri, and his degrees in finance and economics.

That was ten years ago -- ten years of sweat and long hours with little in the bank or anywhere else to show for it. Rasmussen doesn't even own the land he farms, but leases it from Boulder County in a unique arrangement designed to keep open space and preserve agricultural lands.

In the late 1980s, Boulder County's open-space department began purchasing conservation easements on farmlands. Essentially, the easements paid the farmer to give up his right to develop his property; in return, he got cash based on the market value of his place, often a substantial sum, and could continue farming the land he owned. Today the county owns conservation easements on 13,000 to 15,000 acres.

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.

But conservation easements didn't appeal to every farmer; some wanted to retire or move on, and they didn't have heirs interested in working the family farm. So the county began purchasing farmland outright. Rather than turning the land into a park or over to its supposed "natural" state, though, Boulder County leased the land to tenant farmers. Jeff Rasmussen is just one of sixty farmers who now lease a total of 19,000 acres from the county.

The program is not without its critics, most of them from urban centers like the city of Boulder itself. They don't like the use of chemicals on "county land," or that some farmers grow genetically altered crops. They want to see the land returned to its "natural" state, even though the native grasses, brush and animals have long since disappeared, replaced by new ecosystems, new animals that live in farmlands.

The open-space policy is problematic for tenant farmers, too. By buying land, Boulder County is reducing the available supply, making what's left even more scarce, and therefore more valuable, to developers.

As farmland, an acre in this area is worth $1,000, maybe $1,200, Rasmussen says. But a developer or even the open-space program might pay ten to fifteen times that much.

Rasmussen knows he'll never be able to buy a farm in the valley where his grandfather settled. The house where he and his family live was not part of the deal with the county and could be sold out from under them overnight, only to be torn down and replaced with a half-million-dollar dream home. Without his father and uncle, who still farm in the area, loaning him their equipment, he wouldn't have been able to farm even on leased property -- and even with their help, he's not optimistic about how much longer he'll hang on.

Commodity prices are no better than they were forty years ago and actually lower than they were just a few years ago, when farmers could at least make a living. "My grandfather got $4.10 for a hundred pounds of cracked corn in the 1950s," Rasmussen says. "Last year, I got $3.25 for a hundred pounds."

There's plenty of blame to go around. While some critics point out that many farmers would be out of business without government programs, Rasmussen counters that American farmers are not allowed to compete fairly with foreign markets. "Every time we get mad at someone like Saddam Hussein, we use food as a weapon of foreign policy," he says. "And, of course, the American farmer is the one who suffers."

U.S. immigration policies make it difficult for farmers to hire migrant workers, particularly those from Mexico. But Americans won't put up with the long hours and hard work, not when fast-food restaurants pay more or they can get welfare. Social activists complain that when migrant workers are allowed in, the farmers don't pay them enough. But at the same time, the government has made agreements, like NAFTA, that allow the importation of cheap food from Mexico -- produced by workers there who are paid even less.

Rasmussen considers himself lucky to have found a farmer from Mexico, here legally, who wants to work the land rather than at a McDonald's, where he would get higher wages. Rasmussen pays the man what he can afford -- $1,600 a month "and he gets the winter months off," when he can go home to his family in Mexico. "He shows up on time and works hard," Rasmussen says. "But I'm right there with him, working just as hard...and probably making less."

The cost of food in America does not come close to reflecting the cost of producing it. Americans get cheap food, in part because of government cost controls, and in part because farmers are paid almost nothing for their produce. For instance, a farmer collects less than a single cent from the sale of a loaf of bread. In a way, part of the problem is their own fault: American farmers are too good at what they do, and they're too independent to form effective unions to demand better prices and a level playing field with other countries.

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