21st Century homesteaders ‘love the land’ as much as old-timers | SteamboatToday.com

21st Century homesteaders ‘love the land’ as much as old-timers

Ag Appreciation Week

This is the first installment in a two-part story about historical shifts in Northwest Colorado agricultural practices. Watch for the second installment in the March 27 Steamboat Today.

— Farms and ranches in Northwest Colorado are becoming smaller in the 21st century, but those small-scale farmers love their land as much as the early homesteaders, Colorado State University Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch told an audience of about 60 people Monday night at Library Hall in Steamboat Springs.

Hagenbuch spoke on a panel kicking off Ag Appreciation Week. The panel included two of his predecessors in Routt County: Sam Haslem and current CSU Extension Western Regional Director C.J. Mucklow. Also speaking were South Routt's Rita Herold, who vouched for the hard work that ranch women have always done, and Elk River Rancher Dean Look, who grew up milking Holstein dairy cows and made the transition to beef cattle in the 1960s.

The panelists agreed that many changes have come to Routt and Moffat County since the homesteading days when they — Routt and Moffat — were one. Herold described the early 1920s when lettuce and spinach were big cash crops in south Routt, and local lettuce was served in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Haslem spoke about the rise of the sheep industry here, and Look described how the advent of more mechanization in dairy farming caused the small producers in the Elk and Yampa river valleys to exchange Holsteins for shorthorn beef cattle.

Hagenbuch, whose agricultural roots here go back to the homestead days in Pleasant Valley, said the trend today is toward smaller and smaller ag parcels as new arrivals look for ways to practice agriculture on 21st century "homesteads."

"As we talk about history here, in the old days people got (a 160-acre homestead) and then tried to increase the size of their properties," he said. "In 1919, ag agent (J.C. Hale) was going out and trying to help people manage larger acreages. The last couple of decades, those large ranches are getting smaller again, and ag agents are helping our new neighbors understand what they can do with 5, 25 or 35 acres."

People moving to rural Routt County, frequently from cities and suburbs, still have the impression they can run 20 cows on five acres or even one acre, Hagenbuch mused. Depending upon the kind of land they own, two to three acres per animal unit is the rule of thumb, he added.

"I love going out to those places, because those are the people we need to have conversations with about what this land can do," Hagenbuch said. "The people moving in, for the most part, have the same love of the land we do. They just don't always know how to put that love to work for them."

Look recalled that he and his brothers typically heard their father rise at 4 a.m., fire up the stove and begin making coffee. It was a sign that he would very soon expect to hear their feet hitting the floor to begin the daily ritual of milking as many as 25 cows.

Herold, whose ancestors came to South Routt in the 1870s, related an under-appreciated fact about the first wave of homesteaders. She pointed out that, in a significant number of those early families, the husbands had been Civil War soldiers, and their wives had come to be very self-reliant on the farm back home.

"A lot of those women were very independent," Herold said. "Some of them even homesteaded in their own names.

Speaking to her audience through a poem with a repeating verse about the ritual of churning butter and making preserves, she said:

Come butter, come, come butter come

Molly's at the gate waiting on a sweet butter cake

Gathering eggs, planting seeds, pulling the weeds

Picking raspberries, boiling them down, putting them in jars

day in and day out

Come butter come, come butter come

Molly's at the gate waiting on a sweet butter cake

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1