Q. Why is agriculture so important to this area, given that the industry represents a very small portion of Routt County's monetary economy?
A. We proudly call ourselves "Ski Town USA" but we also have roots as a cow town. In the book "Where the Old West Stayed Young," it says, "after the Moffat Road reached Steamboat Springs in late 1908, more cattle went to market from the Steamboat Springs stockyards than from any other shipping point in the United States."
In Steamboat's early days and for a long while thereafter, ranching was the most significant economic activity in and around the area. Today, ranching is still the biggest industry in the county if measured by land-use acreages. Routt County has the largest agricultural economy of all surrounding Colorado counties, according to the most recent agriculture census. However, agriculture represents less than 1 percent of economic activity, so does it matter?
Agriculture is still important because all economic diversification is critical to economies such as Routt County, no matter how small. Agriculture also has additional non-cash benefits that we enjoy. Most everyone appreciates the landscape, irrigated hay meadows and pastures when driving up the Elk River or the Bear River valleys.
Our agricultural landscape is what continues to set the resort of Steamboat Springs apart from all other intermountain resorts. It is the view of our pastoral landscape that many people cite as a reason to visit the Steamboat area. If we lose that niche, we lose what makes Steamboat and Routt County a great place to live and visit. The economic value of the view of the agriculture landscape is more valuable to the resort economy around Steamboat than the actual contribution from hay, cattle and sheep.
Q. What are the biggest challenges ranchers in Routt County face today?
A. There is not a single biggest challenge that the entire ranching industry would agree upon. Below are some of the challenges facing ranchers in Routt County:
Some new rural neighbors don't understand the custom and culture of ranching and are a challenge to existing ranchers. Some of the new people may not know how to deal with fences, cattle on roadways, irrigation scheduling, etc. This doesn't mean that new residents are bad or unwanted; they just need to be aware of the local custom and culture of ranching.
The rural subdivision of land makes it a challenge to find and keep pastures for livestock that are large enough in size to be economically feasible for grazing. The nature of smaller rural parcels is limiting ranchers' abilities to lease adequate grazing land.
Endangered species legislation has the potential to harm ranching and may become a challenge in the future.
Another challenge is maintaining the "critical mass of agriculture" or keeping enough operating ranches in business that support local industry services such as veterinarians, feed stores and equipment dealers.
Q. How has the increase in land prices affected agriculture in the Yampa Valley? How have longtime ranchers adapted to those price changes?
A. Land prices have affected ranching in three ways. First, some of the younger ranchers have sold out and relocated to areas in the United States where land prices are based on agricultural production. Ranch land sold here can be reinvested in areas where the economy is more dependent on agriculture and the rancher can double or triple the size of the operation on a per-cow basis. For example, a 100-head cow operation in Routt County can be exchanged for a 250-cow operation in Western Nebraska. Several ranchers in the past decade have done this.
Secondly, ranchers cannot afford to purchase additional land because the market value is higher than the productive value. Thus, ranchers have to adapt by trying to find long-term lease agreements to sustain their ranching operations. Almost every ranch in Routt County must rely on leased ground to continue its operations.
Additionally, some ranchers have been able to take advantage of conservation easements and/or the Purchase of Development Rights program to allow them to capture some of the market value of land without subdividing it. These purchases have allowed those ranchers to retire, reduce debt, lessen estate-tax burdens or expand their operation, thereby helping keep ranching viable for the future.
Q. How has the influx of new ranch owners influenced agriculture in Routt County?
A. In addition to the negative aspects already discussed, there are also positive points to new ranch owners. The most important point is that the vast majority of new owners buy ranches for their recreational amenities and do not subdivide, thus keeping large tracts of land in ranching. Many of these new owners also have placed these ranches under conservation easements, ensuring their future use for agriculture. New owners also bring something else: open minds and new ideas on ways to address the problems facing agriculture.
Q. Is ranching in Routt County becoming obsolete or is it just changing?
A. It is changing. One of the greatest assets of ranching here is the naturally occurring perennial forage crop (range and pasture) that allows ranchers to put summer weight gain on livestock as competitively as any place in the United States. It is a low-input, highly sustainable grazing system. If no other industries were attracted to Routt County, ranching would be here. This is why beef cattle numbers have remained fairly constant for the past 20 years.
Ranching will have to change with the challenges. As long as there is available pasture and grazing land (including federal lands) and water for irrigation, there will be agriculture in Routt County.