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.

As Culbertson gardened in his backyard, he began to read books about growing specialty crops, particularly vegetables, to sell to urban markets, and a plan began to form. He wanted to be a farmer. "I was tired of living in a suit, riding in airplanes, being away from my family and talking to phonies on the telephone," he says. "I realized that I was living a meaningless existence. I wanted a better life for my family and maybe do my part to make this a better world."

Culbertson didn't want to be just any kind of farmer; he wanted to be an organic farmer, one who grew his crops without the use of pesticides or herbicides. He was ready to quit his job and jump right in, but his wife was less enthusiastic about the change in lifestyle and insisted that he get some experience before they took the plunge. So Culbertson worked as an apprentice on another farm, and then as a sales representative for an organic dairy. At the same time, he read everything he could get his hands on about organic farming, watched all the videos and visited farms across the country.

He also kept his eye out for farm properties up for sale, and even put notices in rural mailboxes asking owners to contact him if they ever wanted to sell their property. Most of the land he heard about was too expensive. And then he learned of the farm outside Hygiene.

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

"This place had a lot that was wrong with it," Culbertson remembers. It was a "dump," littered with everything from old appliances and broken-down equipment to mounds of trash. And because of zoning restrictions, there was no possibility of erecting a "prairie palace" to take the place of the old gray house and newer prefab home.

But Culbertson saw beyond the problems. He saw that part of the land was covered with trees, and below the nearby foothills, the fields opened up and drained into a wetland of cattails.

The retired couple who owned the place had decided that farming wasn't for them; the land had been farmed by a tenant until he died. They wanted the property to stay agricultural, though, and they liked what they saw and heard from Culbertson. He brought his wife to the property, and she agreed it was time to make the move. They bought the 38-acre site and moved into the prefab.

Then Culbertson started the hard work of turning it into an organic vegetable farm. For all of his studies, he was unprepared for many aspects of farming, such as a shortage of affordable labor. An organic farm is more labor-intensive than a traditional farm, because neither herbicides nor pesticides can be used to get rid of weeds or insects. Both have to be removed by hand -- and labor is tough to come by. Culbertson finally settled on offering apprenticeships to people who wanted to learn organic farming -- mostly young, idealistic sorts who live in the gray house and get to eat all the vegetables they can, like Kendra Ferencak, a 24-year-old Denver woman now working in the fields below.

But of all the difficulties Culbertson encountered, none were as daunting as those involving water. Some were simply mistakes; for instance, he spent too much on an irrigation system that didn't work. More shocking was the realization that water was such a precious commodity that practically every drop had to be accounted for.

When Culbertson bought the land, it came with shares in the Lefthand Ditch Company, which had senior water rights dating back to June 1863, as well as additional junior rights picked up over the years. The Lefthand Ditch draws most of its water from Lefthand Creek, which flows from the mountains south of the St. Vrain River, which it joins near Longmont.

The Lefthand Ditch was the focus of one of Colorado's earliest court battles over water rights. In the 1870s, farmer George Coffin got upset when a drought left him with too little water for his crops, so he tore down a diversion dam used by the ditch company to take water from the St. Vrain and transfer it across a mountain ridge into Lefthand Creek. After the ditch company complained, the Colorado Supreme Court studied the matter and sided with the company -- determining that being the first one to use water for "beneficial purposes" was more important than actual physical presence on a watershed. This decision set the precedent for trans-basin diversion, which in the future would allow such projects as the Colorado-Big Thompson.

Culbertson quickly discovered that arguments over water were not a thing of the past. He was accused of using too much water, of taking more than his fair share, and it took him some time to resolve those issues. "Some people will talk things over," he says with a shrug. "Some people assume the worst and want to fight."

Today Culbertson is enjoying a modicum of success as a small-acreage farmer. He currently has seven and a half acres in production, the fields where Ferencak is picking yellow squash and baby artichokes. He plans to expand that to twelve acres.

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