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.

Twenty years later, Betty Ann Newby pauses. Sometimes she can still hear Raimon typing away at his school papers, late into the night after the fields had been irrigated and the farm chores finished.

But her husband was killed in a car wreck in April 1981, leaving Newby alone with three sons. Neighbors pitched in to assist with the farm, but they couldn't help her out of the legal mess in which she found herself. The Newbys had still been paying estate taxes incurred from the deaths of her in-laws, and now the government wanted more.

She called her boys together and asked what they wanted to do: sell and move somewhere else, or find a way to keep the farm. They voted for the latter, but that didn't mean they'd be successful.

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.

For four years, Newby fought the tax assessor. Even her lawyers warned her that she was going to lose if she didn't sell some of the farm to pay the taxes. But she knew that once a farmer starts selling off his property, cutting off each piece gets easier and easier until it's no longer a viable farm. Newby was damned if she'd sell an inch.

At last it came down to a final hearing; the judge had delayed his decision for nearly a year by then. That morning, Newby stopped outside the courthouse in front of the window to the judge's chambers and prayed.

Sitting in her kitchen, Newby raises her hand and recalls how she did not ask God to make the judge do what she wanted if it wasn't right, "but just to look at the papers one more time."

The judge ruled in her favor. The farm would stay in the family. They would keep the land that defined them and defined their place in the world. Passing the land from one generation to another was a way of remembering those who were gone. For that reason, she kept the farm in her husband's name until 1989, when she formed a partnership: Betty Ann Newby & Sons.

With all she's been through, Newby doesn't have time for the "grumblers" among her fellow farmers. She takes pride in working a twelve-hour day putting up hay, then staying up until 1 a.m. to write her column.

Times are changing, development is inevitable, and if farmers want to survive, they're going to have to find their own niche, she says. Like her neighbor, Jim Anderson, who owns quite a bit of farmland in the area, including the site his grandfather bought in 1911 over where Boulder Creek meets up with the St. Vrain just west of Interstate 25.

Although he grows crops for sale and feeds cattle like any traditional farmer, Anderson describes himself as being in the "agri-entertainment" business. Every year he hires a guy from Iowa who cuts mazes into the cornfields for city folks to wander through. In the fall, he opens up his pumpkin patches for all the people who want to experience life on the farm, even if for just a few hours.

But his own girls, he admits, are "city girls" who haven't shown much interest in farming. When asked who will take over Anderson Farms when he's gone, he says hopefully, "Maybe one of them will marry some guy who wants to farm."

Newby realizes that not every farmer can survive on corn mazes or specialty crops. The pressures are enormous. Hardly a day goes by when a developer or real estate agent doesn't call wanting her property or her water rights. Although she sold a few shares of water in order to build this house that she and Raimon had dreamed of, she tells the rest of the vultures to get lost. "They're a bunch of liars, anyway," Newby says.

Every time she stops on top of the hill to take in her favorite view, the sea of rooftops comes closer. And since Weld County doesn't yet have an open-space policy to purchase conservation easements or farmlands outright, those rooftops will be coming closer still. But Newby's not going anywhere. "This place has given me a feeling of belonging that I never felt anywhere else, at least not since I was a child," she says. "I have my faith. And my land. And I am joyful in what I do."


The farther east the St. Vrain flows, the fewer signs there are of those encroaching rooftops. East of I-25, the seed distributors and John Deere farm equipment lots that have disappeared from the west suddenly resurface.

As Longs Peak grows more distant, fading in the haze of water evaporating from fields of corn and dust, dairy farms reappear. Out here, it is the housing developments that are surrounded by farms, not the other way around. Not yet.

The air smells like growing things and cow manure. Irrigation ditches feed fields of crops, not bluegrass lawns of prairie palaces.

But this land faces a more urgent problem than development. According to conservancy district spokesman Werner, orders for water have skyrocketed in the past two weeks -- a clear sign of the drought's severity. That means the reservoirs are rapidly depleting, limiting recreational use and raising concerns about the impact if the drought goes into next year.

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