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.

According to Rademacher, Longmont's policy is to not buy water rights from farms outside its growth boundaries, which are set to remain within a thirty-square-mile area. On another front, the city has spent millions of dollars over the past decade cleaning up the banks and water of the St. Vrain as it passes through the city limits, he points out, establishing a greenway with walking paths and picnic areas. The city also entered an agreement to lease 1,000 acre feet of water in Button Rock to be released during winter months in order to provide at least a minimal streamflow for aquatic habitat.

"We are trying to be good citizens," Rademacher says, "and trying to preserve our heritage as an agricultural colony. Growth is going to happen. Colorado is a beautiful place with a great climate and a good workforce... Our job is to be prepared for that growth and plan for it without destroying why people want to be here in the first place."

And yet, the end of traditional farming in the St. Vrain Valley is inevitable, according to Dave Macy. He was born on a farm near Hygiene in 1939, 22 years after his father moved out here from Illinois.

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.
Part 1: Going With the Flow

Macy understands what's happening to farmers better than most. "My dad bought a place in 1958 from an old guy whose family had been there a hundred years," he recalls. "I remember him telling my dad about sitting at his headgates with a shotgun to make sure other people didn't steal his water.

"Water was the number-one priority. No matter how good the land was, if it didn't have good, senior water rights, it was no good."

Dave kept farming "a bit," even after he began a career as a banker for the First National Bank of Longmont, on whose board he still sits. But as the city of Longmont grew up around some of the family properties, Macy got into the development business -- which, he says modestly, has been "good financially" for the family. Many of the "For Sale" signs planted on nearby properties and in surrounding fields bear the name of his real estate company.

He's also a water broker, the middleman between sellers and owners. And he does appraising.

Macy has a good reputation with farmers in the area -- in part because they consider him honest, and in part because he comes from a longtime farm family and is sensitive to the area's heritage. "We've always worked with good land-use planners," he says, "trying to find a balance between development, which is going to happen whether anyone wants it to or not, and being compatible with the community rather than trying to get every last buck out of it."

Still, land and water prices will eventually force out all but the most creative, and specialized, farmers, Macy says. "The infrastructure for farming around here has already left, for the most part," he points out. "They have to ship their produce so far now, and the chemical and equipment distributors have moved east."

It's while appraising property for estate sales or estate planning that Macy sees the emotional side of the changing landscape. Farmers are usually cash-poor, and their heirs often have to sell the place to pay the taxes. "It's hard on them, especially when the farm may have been in the family for generations," he says.

The farmer who has been forced off the land through no fault of his own must deal with the burden of "having been [the one] who 'lost' the farm the family had for a hundred years or more."

Although he's had a hand in the transformation of the area, Macy says he feels a certain sadness about it. In his office is a large, leather-bound ledger that was heading for the junkyard when he saved it. It dates back to 1880, when the bank was the Emerson & Buckingham Bank, and in thin, blue cursive lettering outlines the deposits and withdrawals of many of the area's founding families, "some of whom still have people around here today." Many of those same names can be found in a 1920 ledger that contains the water-right decrees for the local irrigation ditches and reservoirs.

But times have changed, Macy says, and as land and water around Longmont go to the "highest and best use," farmers will have to go elsewhere.

"The ones I feel sorry for," he adds, "are the young fellas whose families have farmed here before them. I'm afraid it's going to be tough for them to hang on."


Longmont still has the feel of an agricultural town. Banners hanging across the main business streets advertise the county fair, the weekly farmers' market, even the annual goat and sheep sale at the fairgrounds. On the south end of town, the old ramshackle outlet for the Tanaka truck gardens, run by a Japanese-American family that has farmed here for decades, still opens for business each summer, as do a dozen other fruit and vegetable stands on the outskirts of Longmont.

But real estate signs stuck into farmland aren't the only indications that an era is about to end. Off a highway exit called Sugar Mill Road just east of town, an immense old factory sits in disrepair -- windows broken out, machinery rusting in the weeds, the paint that proclaimed this to be the Great Western Sugar mill fading into history. Up until twenty years ago, this factory took in all the sugar beets that area farmers could grow. But then it suddenly shut down. Rumor had it that a developer wanted to put up some apartments there, then abandoned the idea after he found out how much water the city would require and what that water would cost.

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