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.

Although the mill is still standing, today sugar beet farmers -- who this year are actually getting a decent return on their crop -- have to ship their harvest over to Fort Morgan and Greeley. The one-ton bales of hay that dot the fields will be going to cattle feedlots that keep moving farther east, too. The trend is toward more field crops, and there are fewer vegetable farmers in the area.

Off the highway, beyond the last housing development, across County Line Road separating Boulder and Weld counties, past Union Reservoir, there's a hill where Betty Ann Newby likes to stop on the way to her farm. Looking back, she can see the reservoir surrounded by green fields of corn and amber stretches of golden barley. She follows the cottonwoods that line the St. Vrain River and Boulder Creek and shade the city of Longmont, and then looks beyond to the ancient foothills of red sandstone and the purpled mountains dominated by the twin summits of Longs Peak.

"It's the best view in all of Weld County," says the 71-year-old woman, "except for the sea of rooftops that seem to be getting closer every day."

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

The view isn't bad from Newby's kitchen, either, or from one of the wide porches that surround the west and south sides of her home. The house is bordered on those sides by her fields of green alfalfa, which are beginning to show purple flowers as the time to cut draws near. To the north is the small house where she and her late husband and their boys stayed when they first moved back to the old family farm. Beyond that is a stable where Newby boards horses, feeding them from the one-sided hay barn she erected, much to the consternation of her neighbors.

Newby stands strong with one foot in the past and one in the future. She's a historian who literally wrote the book on the area: The Longmont Album, which started as a fundraiser for the Longmont Museum, where she worked as a volunteer. She writes a weekly column for the Longmont Times-Call. In fact, Newby just returned from interviewing her good friend Lavern Johnson, a town activist in Lyons and something of a historian herself.

Newby is also a successful farmer who's fought to keep what she has, when most thought it was a lost cause. As she looks out her kitchen window at the fields of alfalfa and listens to the birds singing as evening approaches, she speaks with affection for a place that has caused her both joy and heartache. There is little she doesn't know about this land, its history and its needs, and that includes the complicated, sometimes violent story of its water rights. She gets the water for her fields from the Oligarchy Ditch, which has senior rights to the St. Vrain dating back to June 1866.

Born in 1929, Betty Ann was raised on a farm northeast of Eaton, beyond Greeley. As a little girl, she lived through the drought, when blowing sand piled up so high the cows could walk right over the fences and dust settled on everything in the house. Her family was lucky, since there was a creek on their property and they could irrigate some of the fields. Still, there wasn't much money, and farmers got by only through helping each other, whether it was with the loan of equipment or milk from the family cows.

Tough as the farmer's life was, there was nothing Betty Ann liked better than accompanying her father out in the fields. "I didn't like to stay inside," she says. "I liked the smell of the hay blossoms and being with my dad."

Her mother had warned her against marrying a farmer. "She didn't want me to live that hard a life," she explains. So she compromised by marrying Raimon Newby, who was the son of a Longmont farm family but also a teacher. The couple moved to Missouri, where he taught and they did a little farming.

In the mid-1960s, Raimon and Betty Ann returned to Colorado for an important event: the passing of the farm to Raimon's mother. The land had been in the family since 1917, when George A. Hamilton moved to the area from Canada because of poor health. He farmed around Loveland for a while but was always on the lookout to add to his holdings, including the piece of land where Newby now lives.

There was no fancy ceremony when Hamilton deeded over the land, no great words of wisdom. A few papers were signed in a small office at the First National Bank in Longmont, and that was it. All the same, Betty Ann realized something important had taken place.

Grandpa Hamilton died shortly after the transfer. He'd lived to a ripe old age, part of the cycle that had been so integral to his life as a farmer. But then Raimon's parents died suddenly in 1978, and he told Betty Ann he wanted to go back to farm the land where he'd grown up.

So they'd moved back to Colorado and into the little house. Together they worked the farm, while he took courses toward his master's degree at the University of Denver. It was a good time. Their kids were getting older, and Betty Ann and Raimon dreamed of building a new house and creating a special niche by growing quality hay to sell to horse owners.

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