Drought concerns are top of mind, but local ranchers also deal with increasing consolidation | SteamboatToday.com

Drought concerns are top of mind, but local ranchers also deal with increasing consolidation

Drought may be on the forefront for ranchers now, but consolidation of the agriculture industry has increased following the pandemic. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Summer drought is top of mind for agriculture producers in Routt County, and things aren’t looking good. But that’s not the only problem.

“We are not sure how much water we are going to have for irrigation,” said Patrick Stanko, agriculture resource coordinator for Community Agriculture Alliance. “As you know, it is dry. I’ve never seen the river this low, this early in the year.”

The uncertainty of water availability is just another unknown producers are facing as they move into a year they hope is marked by a return to the normal food supply chain. On a positive note, the fall’s cattle market already looks like it could be pretty strong.

But the pandemic also has accelerated a trend of consolidation that has been happening in the agriculture industry since the 1970s. In Routt County, Stanko said a ranch needs to have around 300 cows to be profitable, and the number of smaller family ranches, like his, are decreasing.

Many smaller and mid-sized producers were put in situations during the pandemic they simply could not sustain financially, said Libby Christensen, 4-H extension agent with the Colorado State University Routt County Extension Office.

Larger producers are now in positions where they can buy up smaller operations.

“What has ended up happening is that those that are big enough to play are taking over, and so there are fewer options,” Christensen said. “We are expecting to see a lot of additional grabs in the next few months.”

Most of the ranching operations in Routt County are relatively small and expensive when compared with large feedlots on the Front Range.

Stanko said about 73% of family farms and ranches are having trouble getting family members to come back and work to keep the operation in the family. There also really isn’t much of an opportunity for smaller producers to start up locally simply because land is too expensive for it to be profitable.

“Making the dollars and cents work here locally anymore — to try to purchase land for the use of cattle or sheep or wheat or safflower or whatever creative thing you are going to do — is no longer, in my mind, a reality,” said Todd Hagenbuch, agricultural agent and director of the Routt County Extension Office.

Hagenbuch said consideration should be paid to the various other values ranches have and think about paying for such. For instance, ranches provide wildlife corridors for animals to migrate through and food for them to eat.

“What are other ways we can think about getting that producer dollars,” Hagenbuch said.

Producers also are facing encroachment from people buying land in the Yampa Valley. Stanko said there have been situations where producers may not be able to lease land they had in the past, because it has a different owner now.

Hagenbuch said there needs to be better communication with new landowners in the county on the benefits of agriculture. Many new people moving in don’t understand how livestock grazing is used to manage the land, and they believe it to be harmful, he said.

Leasing land is really important, Hagenbuch said, as every livestock producer in the county is paying to use other land in addition to the land they own. There have been discussions about trying to create a system to allow newer landowners to make connections with ranchers to lease out property, Hagenbuch added.

Many of the people buying land in the county are purchasing it for different reasons, according to Hagenbuch. Rather than buying land for development, some have deeper pockets and want the land for access to the outdoors.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan suggested the county could increase the minimum size of subdivisions, from 35 acres to 70 acres. Another solution could be identifying certain places in the county for development and leaving other areas as agricultural land.

“Continuing to answer the question of how we can support ag is a really important one,” Commissioner Beth Melton said. “I believe that the commissioners support ag through our policies, but we need to know what policies need to be in place to support agriculture.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.