Community Agriculture Alliance: Lost crop of Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

Community Agriculture Alliance: Lost crop of Routt County

Emily Katzman/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Yampa lettuce field, 1922. (Courtesy of Yampa-Egeria Historical Society)

The next time you drive Colorado Highway 131 south from Yampa toward Toponas, imagine the valley covered in fields of neatly planted lettuce. It's difficult to picture now but nearly 100 years ago, Egeria Park — the high valley that extends from Toponas to Phippsburg — was one of the major lettuce and spinach producing centers of the nation.

Head lettuce was an ideal crop to raise in Routt County. It grows best in a climate with warm days and cool nights. Lettuce matures quickly, which is critical since we have only 52 to 60 frost-free days each year. The harsh climate actually benefited Colorado lettuce-producing communities like Yampa because the crop was harvested when there was increased demand late in the season, after harvests elsewhere, like in California, had been depleted.

According to the report, "Agricultural Context of Routt County," head lettuce was Routt County's first cash crop. Unlike hay and grain, which were traded in exchange for other goods or services, lettuce was exported, earning farmers seasonal cash.  Lettuce cultivation was a lucrative endeavor. In a 2005 interview, Wanda Redmond, who worked in both the fields and the shipping operations, recalled 1 acre of lettuce yielded the farmer an average of $300 in the 1940s. Adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $5,000 per acre in 2018.

South Routt's lettuce industry supported other economic ventures, like crate production and ice delivery. In 1923, Irvin Shorter built a crate mill on Greenridge, near Phippsburg. He employed local boys to assemble the produce crates for $3 per day. In 1924, J.R. Espy started an ice harvesting business at Trappers (near Finger Rock). Each winter, the company employed local ranchers to harvest tons of ice to store for the season. In the summer, ice was delivered to the lettuce sheds to keep the crops fresh.

Especially during the early years, lettuce cultivation was labor intensive. Local residents, as well as seasonal workers from California, Arizona and India, were employed to help with the hand labor. A 1925 article from the Routt County Sentinel lauded the lettuce industry as a stimulus to the entire regional economy:

"… every building at Yampa is occupied, old buildings have been repaired and improved, and others have been divided into apartments, for the accommodation of the lettuce workers and their families. Property values in the town have greatly increased, and boom conditions now exist, more than ever before."

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The boom times ended as quickly as they began. By the 1950s, commercial lettuce production ceased in Routt County, due to increased costs of equipment, labor and transportation. Better refrigeration technology made shipping from California — where the growing season is much longer — a favorable option.

Today, almost all signs of the lettuce industry are gone. One of the only real tangible reminders of this chapter of Routt County history is Crossan's M & A Market. This general store, which was built in 1903, was an economic hub of the region. The building was recently rehabilitated to be a visitor's center and Yampa's Town Hall. I invite you to visit Crossan's Market to explore the historical exhibits curated by the Yampa-Egeria Historical Society, including a small exhibit about the South Routt lettuce industry. The building is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Emily Katzman is the executive director for Historic Routt County.

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