Holding on

Facing building pressures, few ranchers live as their ancestors did

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Twenty years ago, Bill Gay could look up from feeding cattle on his Pleasant Valley ranch and see neighbors doing the same chore.

Early one morning last winter, Gay's nephew, Todd Hagenbuch, was feeding cattle in the same pastures. He stopped and watched as the headlights from his neighbors' trucks and sport utility vehicles wound through the snow-covered fields of the South Valley on their way to work. It dawned on him that he, his uncle and his grandmother, Elaine Gay, would be the only ones left in the valley for the day.

"It's almost lonelier than it would have been back then," Hagenbuch said of the days when his grandparents were confined to their ranch during the long winter months.

In Elaine Gay's kitchen on a rainy June morning, the three reminisced about earlier days. They told stories of a time when neighbors helped with haying and branding, and then came by for a game of cards.

As they reminisced, they ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, potatoes and toast. There was a time when everything for such a breakfast was produced on the ranch. Now, it comes from the local super market.

Much has changed since Elaine Gay and her husband, Bob, moved to the Green Creek Ranch in 1948.

The Gays' electric supply comes from wires strung down county roads, not from a series of water wheels that were used until the 1950s. They use tractors, not teams of horses, to feed stacked hay to cows in the wintertime.

They don't raise pigs or chickens, and they don't have dairy cattle -- livestock that once fed the family and generated extra income.

Bob Gay once counted more than 45 full-time cattle operations in the area. But during the years, those ranches have disappeared 35 acres at a time.

"The permanent, year-round operations from Oak Creek to Steamboat are done, except for us," Bill Gay said.

Hanging on

The Gays cling to the ranching tradition. In 1996, decades after most, they stopped stacking loose hay and using teams of horses to feed it to cows in the winter. Hagenbuch lives in a 1898 homesteader cabin on the ranch and tinkers with a 1954 Ford tractor.

The family runs about 200 head of cattle, breeds horses for buyers across the country and has a recreational fishing business on the side.

But there are fewer and fewer families like the Gays. The million-dollar homes on the hills overlooking the ranch show why -- the family epitomizes the adage "land rich, cash poor."

"Agriculture is tied to lifestyle, heritage and a way of life," Bill Gay said. "You can't just single it out as a certain entity. How do you put a dollar value on heritage? That is what ag in this valley really is."

Changing land use

The 2002 Census of Agriculture, released this summer, shows that from 1992 to 2002, Routt County lost more than 20 percent of its agricultural land, with 126,000 acres sold into other uses.

The loss of agriculture is a statewide trend. In the past five years, 1.5 million acres of land have been taken out of agricultural production.

The number of agricultural operations countywide has increased to 593, but those operations are, on average, much smaller than they were in 1992. The 2002 census reported an average farm size of 759 acres and a median farm size of 188 acres. In 1992, the U.S. census counted 438 farms with an average size of 1,316 acres.

The overriding change is the ever-increasing price of land.

Today, the average ranch costs $1.5 million, more than double 1992's average $705,000 price tag.

With increasing land prices, more and more land is changing ownership. A study done by the University of Colorado's Center for the American West showed that from 1990 to 2001, 38 percent of large ranches and 41 percent of the land in large ranches in Routt County changed hands.

During that 10-year period, 64 percent of the large-ranch acreage sold to buyers who purchased the land for its amenities and not for traditional agricultural use. Just 7 percent went to traditional ranchers and 18 percent went to developers or investors.

CU geography professor William Travis, who worked on the study with Hannah Gosnell, said the central theme of Steamboat's Old West identity -- the traditional family ranch -- is far from the norm.

"We think of them as the archetype and they are just not," Travis said. "They are the holdouts."

The high rate of turnover --107 of the county's 280 large ranches sold between1990 and 2001 -- will continue, Travis said.

"Once land is in nonagricultural hands, it is more likely to be liquidated or subdivided," he said. "We would expect to see more turnover in the future."

The beginning

In Routt County, modern-day agriculture began in the 1870s when large cattle operations that wintered their herds in the deserts of the West would bring them to the green pastures of the high country for the summers.

Longtime rancher and historian Jim Stanko said the process was called the "shove up and the shove down."

At the time, the land was open range and could be claimed by the first cattle outfit that used it.

The larger outfits died out when homesteading took off, but Routt County remained a prime spot for raising cattle. Its pastures allowed for good weight gain during the summer months before cattle were shipped off to stockyards in the fall.

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, allowed anyone to claim 160-acre plots as long as they posted the corners, showed improvements on the property and lived on the land.

Routt County's first homesteader was James Crawford, who brought up cattle for the summer and wintered them in Burins.

"It didn't take more than a couple of winters for Mrs. Crawford to say, 'James, this is going to change,'" Stanko said.

The first winter that Crawford stayed in Routt County, he mapped out the town of Steamboat Springs.

Other homesteading families would follow, but unlike other homesteading areas, 160 arid acres of Colorado high country proved not enough to eek out a living. So, Stanko said, homesteaders would file on 160-acre plots for their wife and children -- and then convince their relatives to file.

Others would buy homesteads from those who made an effort, but failed. It was a time of wheeler-dealers, Stanko said, as homesteaders worked to build larger ranchers with hundreds of cattle.

As homesteading grew, Stanko said, hay production followed. The fenced 160-acre plots ended the days of open-range grazing. Instead of wintering cattle elsewhere, the ranchers grew hay -- an endeavor boosted by irrigation and the advancing technology of mowers.

"You can bet hay did away with big outfits. They couldn't adapt or keep up. Most big outfits disappeared," Stanko said.

Small, family-owned ranches replaced the big outfits.

Cattle and hay

Cattle and hay have been the staples of agriculture in Routt County for a century. The 2002 U.S. census inventory on cattle and calves in Routt County totaled 29,784. Fifty years ago, the inventory on cattle and calves was 37,664.

In 2002, more ranches produced hay than any other crop in Routt County. More than 320 ranches combined to produce 38,550 tons of hay. In 1954, by comparison, area ranches produced 42,954 tons of hay.

Most old-time ranchers can recall days when stockyards along the river were filled with cattle. In the 1910s, Steamboat was the westernmost point on the rail line, and ranches would bring cattle from throughout the region to ship them. At one point, Steamboat was dubbed the "Cowiest Town in the USA" for being the largest shipper of cattle in the country.

Vernon Summer, who lives on his family's Centennial Ranch just down the road from the Sidney School House, remembers the days when herds of cows would tromp past his house on their way to the stockyards. The Sidney Stockyards were near the south entrance to town. Toponas, Yampa, Phippsburg and Hayden also had stockyards.

The Steamboat Stockyards were on the west end of town along 13th Street, past where the Depot Art Center stands today.

Ranchers would come together to take cattle by train to the Denver markets and had to schedule the railroad cars in advance, Stanko said.

"The railroads didn't come and pick up one ranch. There were a string of cars for a group of ranches. Some were in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 cars," he said.

Getting the cattle to the stockyard was an all-day event. Often, the heads of ranching families would ride down in the caboose to see how their animals fared at the Denver sales.

Buyers had an easy way of telling which cattle where shipped out of the Western Slope: The mostly white-faced Hereford cattle had all-black faces upon arriving to Denver because of the soot coming through the Moffat Tunnel.

The last cattle car left Steamboat Springs in 1976, bound for Chicago. By that time, Stanko said many ranchers were shipping their cattle by truck.

Cattle and hay have not been the only agricultural products of Routt County. From the beginning, sheep also have been a part of the agricultural landscape -- Routt County had its share of Cattle and Sheep Wars. The 2002 Census reported 50 farms with an inventory of 5,206 sheep.

Strawberries, lettuce, potatoes and milk were all vibrant industries in Routt County at one time.

"I guess the key word is diversity. We've tried just about everything conceivable in Routt County," Stanko said.

Those industries have long gone, pushed out by larger producers.

Price of progress

Barley, oats and wheat were once widely grown in Routt County. In the first half of the century, Steamboat and Hayden had grain elevators. Yampa Valley Milling, which stood where the Iron Horse Inn is today, produced Yampa Valley Best flour and Joe Dandy breakfast cereal.

"Most people ate it," Summer said. "But when stores shipped other brands in to compete with it, it didn't pay to make flour here or breakfast food."

The virgin soil allowed ranches to produce high yields for the grain crops, Stanko said.

"Almost every successful cattle operation had some sort of grain farm along with it, especially smaller people," Stanko said. "My granddad made most of his money off of grain."

Today, just 15 Routt County ranches are listed as wheat producers in the 2002 census. They combined to produce 113,000 bushels on 6,900 acres. The census indicates there are no farms that produce oats and three that produce barley.

In 1959, the U.S. census reported that 540,000 bushels of wheat were produced on 21,000 acres.

As the soil became less productive and larger operations with milder climates became more efficient, fewer ranches continued to operate.

Gone shopping

It's easy for longtime ranchers such as Summer, Stanko and the Gays to remember when agriculture combined with mining to drive the local economy.

Elaine Gay remembers the days when ranch families would go to town every Saturday night to do their shopping.

They would catch the second show at the movie theater or go to a dance when the shopping was done.

There were three tractor dealerships, two hardware stores, two grain elevators, two locker plants for storing meat, a butcher shop and a sale barn. Even the auto mechanics, tire shops and drug stores catered to the ranchers, Stanko said.

"It was just that ranching was that important," he said.

Ranchers today can still find some of their supplies in Routt County, but many of the tractors, medicines and even things as simple as baling twine are bought online or out of the county.

Economic impact

Jo Stanko, Jim's wife, muses that if ranching disappeared it wouldn't make a dent in Routt County's economy.

Numbers from the Yampa Valley Partners' Community Indicators Project agree. In 2000, 1 percent, or $1.4 million, of personal income derived from labor sources in Routt County came from agriculture and ag services.

In 1970, agriculture represented more than 12 percent of all personal income derived from labor sources, bringing in $10.5 million. It was second only to mining in the total personal income produced.

Not only did the local economy support ranchers, but ranchers produced many of the goods sold at stores in the area.

"When I was younger, I wouldn't believe I'd ever buy milk or eggs or vegetables," Summer said. "I thought it was a way of life."

Jo Stanko said ranching wives brought in a second income through raising chickens and dairy cows and selling the eggs and milk in town. Until the 1960s, when the ski mountain opened, second jobs for ranching women weren't readily available.

"Rather than fighting with the chickens, it is easier to go clean condos for the morning," Stanko said. "It's a lot more money, you get your health insurance paid for and you get the afternoon off."

Jim Stanko said ranching started to change when the ski area opened.

"A lot of old, established ranches up and down the valley started selling and changing hands," Stanko said. "Once that happened, it was kind of a snowball effect."

Stanko laments the loss of camaraderie among neighbors. He recalled an era when neighboring ranchers traveled down the valley helping each other thresh or brand.

Stanko said the help is still there, but it comes from friends who aren't attached to agriculture or know the favor of a helping hand will soon be returned.

"What if they couldn't do it?" Stanko said. "That is the scariest thing to me. What happens some day when I need a branding crew?"

What's next?

Ranchers are now faced with a signification challenge: They must increase their production to keep profit margins the same, but they are unable to expand because of the rising cost of land.

Bill Gay said some ranchers got trapped into selling off 35-acre parcels one at a time and then found they didn't have enough land left to operate the ranch.

"Pretty soon, they sold off most of it," Bill Gay said. "Forty acres is not enough to sustain cost of operations. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy to sell off the rest of it."

He said adapting to the changes and bringing in the next generation are essential to keeping the family ranch. Much of the Gay property is protected by conservation easements now, and with the money from those easements, the family was able to buy more land.

They will stay on the ranch, even as the agriculture land disappears around them.

"We are in it for the long haul," Bill Gay said. "Generation after generation."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpolit.com

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