By the numbers
■ Number of farms in Colorado
■ Land in farms in Colorado
2009: 31.3 million acres
2010: 31.2 million acres
■ Average farm size in Colorado
2009: 865 acres
2010: 864 acres
Source: USDA Farms, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations 2010 Summary
■ Number of Routt County farms
fewer than 180 acres
■ Number of Routt County farms more than 180 acres
Source: USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture
Steamboat Springs For Routt County ranchers, agricultural land has more value than just what it provides to make a living.
There’s value in the ranching lifestyle and in adding diversity to the local economy. It has implications in the local tourism industry because studies show that visitors love the pastoral views.
But it’s never been easy to make ends meet in the agriculture business.
“They like the lifestyle; it’s the lifestyle they know,” said CJ Mucklow, Routt County extension agent, about what keeps ranchers in the business. “And sometimes — sometimes — they can make money. The returns aren’t that huge.”
So as ranchers try to expand to succeed, and more urbanites retreat to the countryside for a bit of peace, the landscape of agricultural space is changing.
Although there will always be those who rely on agricultural commodities for a living, that number is shrinking as land uses diversify and the baby boomers pass on their farms to the next generation, Mucklow said.
This month, the United States Department of Agriculture published its annual study of farms, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations, which shows a broad picture of agriculture land in 2010. The study estimates the number of farms nationwide at 2.2 million, which is virtually unchanged from the previous year.
The number of cattle operations nationwide was down 1 percent from 2009.
In Colorado, the number of farms fell by less than 1 percent, from 36,200 to 36,100, and the number of acres in farms decreased by about 100,000.
Mucklow said in his experience, there are far more farms than there used to be in Routt County but fewer big ones.
“The industry is shrinking because there are more land uses,” Mucklow said. “More people, more sprawl, more uses. It’s the growth of Colorado.”
Marsha Daughenbaugh, rancher and executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, said one concern is the loss of prime farm and ranch ground because of large tracts of land being parceled into smaller lots.
Home construction and development also has broken up many of the large expanses of agricultural land, like the proposed Steamboat 700 annexation, which once was used for wheat and alfalfa production and currently stands unused.
Mucklow said the division of the land is good and bad.
“We have fewer neighboring ranches now, and we have to cooperate to survive,” he said. “And now we have more hassles with nonranching neighbors. But on the upside, with the tax laws, people want to keep (the land) in agriculture, so it’s easier to lease.”
But many farmers are no longer making it on agriculture alone, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the Routt County economy.
Mucklow said a recent study showed that roughly 25 to 30 percent of ranching income in the area comes from recreation such as hunting, fishing, guest ranches and other tourism services.
“Trying to get more money from the same resource base won’t cut it,” Mucklow said. “You’ve got to look for other ways.”
Allowing elk hunting or fishing or offering lodging has supplemented many ranchers’ incomes and is a way to preserve the land in its agricultural form while adjusting to the changing economy.
Mucklow said conservation easements are another way to capture income from agricultural lands while preserving them. Daughenbaugh also said the easements have been a positive step in preserving agricultural land.
“Routt County has to be complimented for the number of acres that have been placed into permanent conservation easements,” she said. “It’s had a huge impact on how people think of land in this area.”
As far as today’s ranchers are concerned, operating a sustainable agriculture business in today’s market takes a lot more than just selling commodities.
But there are still those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and stay in the business they know and love.
“It gets into your heart — you want to see it stay in agriculture,” Daughenbaugh said. “These families are willing to give up a lot so their families can stay on the land.”
— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or e-mail nignlis@SteamboatToday.com