Community Agriculture Alliance: Looking back at Yampa Valley history informs the future |

Community Agriculture Alliance: Looking back at Yampa Valley history informs the future

Michelle Meyer
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

What makes a place a home?  Family, comfort, refuge, personal belongings?  There is no one answer, and many will say “Home is not a place, it’s a feeling.”

The Yampa Valley is a special place that brings a sense of being “home” and different feelings for each of us. With so many new residents now calling Routt County their home, it is more important than ever to connect with the entire community.  

While there are a wide range of reasons people come to the Yampa Valley, a common theme is the natural beauty of the area and the sense of community. The scenic open spaces that include fields of hay and grazing cattle are working landscapes. The views we all love are what make this a special place, but they are not free. Rather the iconic images of horses and barns are from local working agriculture.  To truly appreciate this, we all should understand and acknowledge the past, present, and future of local agriculture.  

The first cattle were trailed into the region in 1871 and by 1880 there were 65,000 head in the area for summer grazing. For many years it was said that there were more cattle in the Yampa Valley than people. The first band of sheep appeared in 1890 leading to the infamous cattle-sheep range wars that plagued the regions for almost three decades. 

When the railroad entered the Valley in the early 1900s, the economic effects for agriculture were immediate. Rail transportation allowed needed supplies to be imported and agriculture products for export. In 1910, the Routt County Strawberry Company (think Strawberry Park area) loaded 528 crates of fresh, handpicked strawberries onto the train.

By 1913, more cattle were shipped from the Steamboat railyard than any other single point in the United States. Vegetable production also flourished, and by the early 1920s, farmers were planting over 500 acres of peas and 2,000 acres of lettuce and spinach annually. 

In 1926, 720 train carloads of head lettuce were sent to California alone. Produce was kept fresh on ice blocks that were harvested in the spring and stored in ice sheds. If you look closely along the highway in South Routt, remnants of old ice sheds can be seen along the railroad tracks. 

At different times during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, there were medium size dairies throughout the region. Remembering that supermarkets and grocery store chains were not part of the community yet, almost every family ranch had a small herd of dairy cows and milk was shipped to Denver via the train in five- or ten-gallon cans with family names on them.

Steamboat also boasted a factory that produced powdered malted milk and the county had four grain elevators. The Yampa Valley looked very different a generation ago, but the sense of home was firmly rooted in the rural community.

Today, agriculture is still important to the core of Northwest Colorado. Agriculture production contributes to the local economy, provides an authentic western heritage, and the enduring iconic images of working landscapes and open spaces are a driver in our tourism economy. Local agriculture now mostly centers around cattle, sheep, and hay production. 

Smaller, multi-generational family run farms and ranches endure despite economic challenges and rising land values. The future remains hopeful. New farmers and ranchers bring renewed energy and innovative ideas to the region. Interest and demand for local food continues to grow, with more producers selling products locally. The Community Agriculture Alliance and other partners are working to strengthen the local food system, but as with most issues it takes time, resources, and community support.  

A changing and variable climate with the ongoing drought is the reality for us all. Working to protect agricultural water rights while maintaining a healthy Yampa River requires collaboration with environmental and recreation groups. We are fortunate to have supportive and innovative partners in the Yampa Valley.

The saying, “If you eat, drink or wear clothing then you are involved in agriculture,” remains true today. There is no denying that the Yampa Valley has changed and will continue to do so, but one constant is that it will always be a special place that people want to call home. Looking back can help us understand where we are today and what we want our shared future to look like.

Michele Meyer, Executive Director Community Agriculture Alliance

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