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.

High land prices, low food prices, a labor shortage -- farmers have dealt with those dilemmas for years. What's new is what has happened with water.

When Boulder County buys farmland for open space, it's careful to make sure the water rights are included (it learned that lesson the hard way). And so Rasmussen has fairly senior rights to water from the Boulder and White Rock Ditch, which draws its water from Boulder Creek. But not senior enough to give his crops that final week or so of moisture they need to mature, particularly in a drought year when there's increased evaporation and no rain to supplement the irrigation ditch water.

Normally, he could rent excess water from Longmont or find someone with CBT water to spare. But that water has become so expensive that he can't afford to use much -- and during a drought year, people are holding on to what they have anyway, fearing the dry spell may continue.

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.

Rasmussen hopes that Coors will take most, if not all, of the barley he's about ready to harvest; that may hold off the creditors for a bit. He banks at First National Bank of Longmont, the last independent bank in town and one that traditionally has been supportive of farmers. "I still have a good relationship with my personal banker," he says. "He's from a farm family and understands what it's like. But the people he has to answer to, they're good people, but they're getting farther and farther removed from the farm..."

Rasmussen's voice trails off as he contemplates the future. Asked where he sees himself in ten years, he pauses and looks out the window at the land he loves. He and Sherri have already pondered this question, asking themselves at what point would they walk away while they still have a little to show for all their hard work.

"In town," he says quietly. "Probably in town."

Sherri enters the house with their girls. It's her day off from the USDA office in Longmont, where she took a job to help make ends meet. "It'd be hard to leave," she says after her husband excuses himself. "This is a wonderful place to raise children.

"And I always know where to find him. The hours are real long, and that can be tough, but I can take the girls out to meet him in the field when I take him his dinner. They know where food comes from and have an appreciation for it."

Sherri's eyes grow wet as she considers leaving the farm. "I was from the town, not a farm," she says. "But I love it here, especially the people. They're still independent and stubborn, but they still all do for each other...somebody gets sick, they get together and cut his hay. Rich or poor, they all know what it's like, and no one looks down on anyone because they're having a hard time."

Old-timers and young men alike are suffering. At Sherri's office, she's seen eighty-year-old farmers, as tough as the ground they've worked all their lives, break down into tears because it's no longer economically feasible to keep the family farm or pass it on to a younger generation.

Sherri looks at her husband as he walks across the yard, silhouetted against the rows of corn, the 90-degree-plus day sucking the moisture from every living thing. "I feel sorriest for him," she says. "He's young and he's a good farmer. It's not his fault, and this is what he loves. But I think we're going to have to leave."


In the fall of 1870, a banner headline in the Chicago Tribunepronounced: "Chicago going to hold her own with New York in the colonization of the West."

The Civil War was over, but the country was still feeling the effects economically, particularly in the East. Men moved west to seek their fortunes in the gold fields of the Rocky Mountains, but when they saw what outrageous prices miners were willing to pay for food, some men moved back along the Front Range to make their fortunes farming.

By now, the Homestead Act had been in effect for ten years and most of the area settled, but to many it was still Webster's "region of savages and wild beasts." Colorado was six years away from becoming a state, only seven removed from the slaughter of white settlers that precipitated the massacre of Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne Indians, mostly women and children, at Sand Creek.

The Front Range had good soil and, in places like the St. Vrain River valley, established irrigation ditches and reservoirs to supply water. But it needed larger population bases to create a market for the farmers and ditch companies. And so those interested in promoting the area for settlement came up with the idea of bringing in whole communities, or "colonies," and plunking them down in likely areas. Instead of settling a family at a time, or even a wagon train at a time, the idea was to lure folks with a broad base of talents -- bakers and farmers, bankers and ironsmiths, storekeepers and teachers -- to create self-sufficient towns.

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