Longform

HIGH PLAINS GRIFTERS

part 1 of 2
Most working ranchers and farmers would find tending to the Colorado Farms spread a respite. The foreman of the ranch, Delbert Jenkins, is 33 years old and owner of a bushy horseshoe mustache and a droopy Stetson. He runs about three dozen cattle on just over 1,000 acres of stubbly grassland south and east of Colorado Springs.

"The rest of the time," Jenkins explains, "I just keep up the fences and try to keep the neighbors' cattle off the rest of the ranch." In fact, he points out, it would be illegal to graze a cow or run a tractor across the vast majority of the 17,500 acres that make up Colorado Farms.

The reason most of this land must be left alone is that it is being leased by the federal government. And that has made Colorado Farms one of the more profitable ranches in the state--particularly considering what goes on there. It generates an average of $500,000 in annual income, all of which is taxpayer money and all of which is paid to Colorado Farms for doing nothing with the land except staying off of it.

Generous farm subsidies are not new, and government money has sustained more than one struggling farm community across the country's bread basket. Yet this is different.

For starters, the owners of Colorado Farms are neither Coloradans nor farmers. They are money managers and bankers and, in one case, the owner of a string of nursing homes based in a small Missouri town. One of the partners visits his spread once a year in the autumn to hunt the antelope and deer that have moved in since the government began paying the Missouri money men not to work the land.

Some time in the next couple of months Congress will likely pass the latest version of the Farm Bill, updating work it did in 1985 and 1990. Legislators say they intend to make deep cuts in the dozens of programs that set agricultural policy and help farmers.

One item that probably won't shrink much, though, is the Conservation Reserve Program. Although its ten-year existence was to expire this fall, six months ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the program for another year--until the end of 1996--to give lawmakers time to decide whether to keep it for another decade. It seems they will.

The Conservation Reserve Program has good intentions: to prevent soil erosion by paying farmers to plant grass and trees instead of crops. But CRP is also one of the most expensive programs in farming policy. Between 1985, when it was started, and the end of 1995, when it was originally scheduled to end, CRP will have cost taxpayers $19 billion.

Colorado farmers have received at least their fair share of that money, a little over $910 million. Baca County landowners alone cashed government checks worth nearly $114 million, the second-highest amount for any county in the country.

And the largest single CRP contract in the United States, originally worth $5.6 million to its owners, straddles the boundary of Lincoln and Crowley counties, about a ninety-minute drive from Colorado Springs. That's where Delbert Jenkins works.

There is little question that CRP has conserved tons of soil on the sprawling Colorado Farms ranch. But if ever there was an example of how various government agricultural subsidies have turned the business of working the land into a scramble for taxpayers' money, Colorado Farms is it.

Over the past twenty years the government has paid ranchers to improve it as grazing land, and then paid people to tear it up for farmland. When that project failed, the government picked up the bill to repair the land back to grassland.

Today the Department of Agriculture still pays the Missouri businessmen generously to keep the land out of use. Even more incredibly, it writes separate checks to the same investors so that they won't be tempted to grow crops on the land that never could sustain them in the first place.

Indeed, after one bankruptcy, two foreclosures and various federal investigations into murky money deals made possible by the lucrative subsidy payments--the vast majority of them through CRP--the property has more than enough history to show what can go wrong when the government meddles too much on the range.

The land, nearly 2,000 acres larger than the entire city of Boulder, unrolls and spreads like a dusty carpet from southern Lincoln County into Crowley County, crisscrossed by dirt roads and broken only by short rises and a handful of abandoned windmills. Several miles inside the northern border, in one of the rare groves of trees that break the horizon, two ranch houses face each other across a road.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer