Adapting to the Land

A review of Adapting to the Land: A History of Agriculture in Colorado, published by University Press of Colorado, 2022.

Editor's note: This review comes to you from the Colorado Book Review. More reviews can be found at the Denver Public Library.

How many Coloradans would guess agriculture is Colorado’s number one business? Yet we have lacked a thorough statewide historical overview of that industry since Alvin T. Steinel’s 1926 book, History of Agriculture in Colorado. Now John F. Freeman, a University of Michigan–trained historian, and Mark E. Uchanski, a professor of horticulture at Colorado State University, have updated that story. With agriculture now facing statewide drought, forest fires, water wars, and land lost to development, this is a timely work. One of the saddest sights in Colorado today is that of former crop fields drying up because water rights have been sold to thirsty booming communities like Aurora, Colorado Springs, and other urban centers.

Photo of a book cover whose title is "Adapting to the Land: A History of Agriculture in Colorado." Below the title are the author' names: John F. Freeman with Mark E. Uchanski. The photo on the cover is across the cover's entirety from edge to edge, and is what appears to be an old photo, recolored, of a farmer stanging amongst rows of crops that stretch off far into the distance. Short leafy plants cover the linear mounds of early, and water flows between the mounds. The farmer is standing with a shovel.

Adapting to the Land: A History of Agriculture in Colorado. By John F. Freeman with Mark. E. Uchanski.

The book starts with Native American reliance on native plants (as well as animals): prairie parsley, morning glory roots, chokecherry, piñon nuts, various berries, and other flora. The Ancestral Puebloans constructed ponds, dams, and ditches to water plots of corn, beans, and squash. Hispanics in the 1850s introduced communal irrigated farming in the San Luis Valley where the People’s Ditch holds Colorado’s first recorded water right since April 10, 1852. In Denver, Rocky Mountain News founder William N. Byers passed out seeds and made his newspaper “the principal chronicle of early farming in Colorado” (p. 18).

During the 1870s, Byers facilitated the Union Colony of Greeley, Colorado’s first major agricultural settlement, which soon discovered that irrigation was the key to farming the “Great American Desert.” By 1900, Colorado led the nation in acreage of irrigated farmland. During the 1900s, ever-larger federal reclamation projects transformed Colorado and the West. The authors’ claim that “there is little opposition to federal water projects” (p. 49) overlooks increasingly vocal protests from environmentalists.

Prairie grasses that supported buffalo, elk, deer, and antelope, as settlers noted, could also support cattle. Ongoing research at experimental stations is also working on grasses that might feed humans. Experimental farms proved to be one of the best ways to educate farmers on topics such as dryland farming, using registered certified seed, rotating crops, keeping accurate records, and other advances. To prevent topsoil loss, the soil conservation districts could even contract for others to implement soil-saving measures if owners would not. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an estimated one tenth of Colorado’s topsoil blew away. One New Deal response was the creation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. During the 1950s another lesser dust bowl and drought received more relief from better state and federal assistance programs. By then some of the worst blown-out land had been removed from farming and rehabilitated as the Comanche and Pawnee National Grasslands.

One of my Colorado ancestors, like a majority of farmers, ultimately suffered foreclosure upon his Weld County farm. Family lore has him responding to “ag agents” lecturing him on how to improve farming with “I don’t farm now as good as I know how now.”

The primary nonfederal government organization to support agriculture has been Colorado State University. Founded in 1870 as the Colorado Agricultural College, it was renamed the Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic [sic] Arts, or A&M, in 1935, then became Colorado State University in 1957. Although now a full-fledged university, agriculture remains its strongest program, along with veterinary science, forestry, and conservation programs—which are also strong suits.

Besides CSU, this book covers the many organizations involved in agriculture, such as the Grange, the National Farmers Alliances, the Colorado Farmers Union, and the Colorado Farm Bureau, all of which struggled to improve the diminishing role and influence of agriculturalists in an increasingly urban society. Agrarian protest reemerged in 1977 when struggling farmers in Baca County organized the American Agricultural Movement and invaded Pueblo and Denver with a protest “tractorcade.” 

The federal State Agricultural Station program, set up in 1887, promoted better farming and ranching. Among its successes were a pure seed law, crop rotation, crop diversity, and help controlling livestock and crop diseases. The stations fought still-familiar weeds: Russian thistle, Canada thistle, and bindweed. Grasshoppers were the greatest insect pests, and entomologists debated whether the best control was natural or chemical—chickens and turkeys or pesticides. 

The US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry investigated issues such as potato blight. Potatoes comprised Colorado’s highest valued crop by the 1920s before sugar beets took the lead. The authors point out that sugar beet production began decades before Charles Boettcher’s Great Western (GW) Sugar Beet empire came to dominate. GW and other sugar beet companies relied on migrant labor, and their children were kept out of school to work the fields for several months in the spring and the fall. 

The authors do not neglect the Western Slope. The big story, of course, is water diversion, especially the Eastern Slope diversion of Colorado River waters. The authors fail to liven up this saga with jokes, such as one of my favorites: When West Slopers complain about East Slope diversions, we on the east should explain: “We don’t steal your water. We borrow it, send it to a big factory in Golden and greatly improve the water. Then we send it back to you in shiny silver and gold cans.”

Major water diversion projects include the giant Colorado Big Thompson plan, completed in 1956. Another watery milestone was Adams County farmer Frank Zyback’s invention of the self-propelled, center-pivot overhead sprinkler irrigation device which he patented in 1952. Not only water but also fertilizer can be shot out with this device of quarter-mile-long pipes connected to a center pivot sprinkler. It leaves irrigated a large circle most easily seen from the air and has transformed many a Colorado farm. Such practices aided big farmers and proved popular although they depleted underground water and lost much to evaporation. Meanwhile some agriculturalists argue that family farmers do less damage to the land. A prime example is the farm in Larimer County run by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga using ancient small-farming techniques successfully.

This book focuses on the Steamboat Springs area’s pioneering efforts to preserve ranches through conservation easements. Cattle people and conservationists have often been enemies in the past, but ranching environmentalists in the Steamboat area negotiated the country’s first land trust sponsored by a livestock organization, the Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, which has since attracted such big-time ranchers as Sue Anschutz Rogers. Subsequently, many ranchers have donated development rights to conservation groups where land often winds up as recreational usage. In exchange, ranchers get hefty tax breaks.

The book jumps into the present to note developments such as the Museo de Tres Colonias in Fort Collins which preserves the story of Hispanic life and work in the sugar beet industry. It travels to England for a quick history of organic farming, which caught on in Colorado, the first state to set up an organic certification program. Organic farming became a boon to small grass-feed farmers—and to some big ones, such as Coleman Natural Meats. Colorado’s influx of a young, urban, environmentally sensitive people has boosted organic farming and other locally grown natural grass-feed foods. One Colorado-based organic company, Horizon Organic, has become the nation’s largest supplier of organic milk and a variety of other organic products. Boulder-born Alfalfa’s grocery chain, which specialized in natural and organic products, was bought out by the national gigantic Whole Foods, which is moving towards natural and organic foods. The authors show how agriculture has been transformed by synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides. Partly as a reaction to such poisons, some Coloradans are shifting to home-grown, organic, locally produced foods. Restaurants are now boasting their own home-grown organic produce. The authors have less to say about pest and noxious weed-eating insects and birds.

After World War II, an ever-smaller number of farms produced an ever-increasing amount of food. Corn and wheat became the leading crops. The authors do not cover a major problem for farmers—keeping their children interested in this risky, hard, demanding business. One step in that direction is 4-H clubs, which celebrate rural life. Founded nationally in 1912, 4-H comprises youth organizations whose mission is “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential.” Aimed at rural youth, the organization’s motto is “head, heart, hands, and health.” It teaches better farm and ranch practices, sometimes in the hope that children will educate their parents.

The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act was one of the most successful of New Deal agricultural measures. It addressed some of ranchers’ biggest problems—ending the murderous cattle versus sheep wars, dealing with too many wild horses devouring public grazing lands, prairie dog burrows that cripple livestock, and replacing sagebrush with more nutritious grasses. The act, first tested in Colorado, worked well, and became national because ranchers and Republicans were recruited to help administer it. It led to the creation of the Bureau of Land Management to handle public lands. 

The authors see the ongoing popularity of the National Western Stock Show as indication that Coloradans care about their agricultural roots, their cowboy heritage. That biggest-of-all Colorado festivals now draws over 600,000 visitors every January. Besides beef, Colorado is famous for lamb, Rocky Ford melons, Pueblo chiles, pork, potatoes, iceberg lettuce, cauliflower, Olathe corn, and pinto beans. 

The authors update the story by covering such modern food fights as those over genetically modified organisms (GMOS). They present both sides of such genetic engineering issues. A whole chapter devoted to organic plants will probably be more than most readers want. The authors broaden this book with many tangential details—for example, that highway departments must include, since the 1960s, reseeding highway borders. As so many farms and ranches disappear to become housing and retail complexes, county extension agents found their work shifting to advising homeowners on raising fruits, vegetables, trees, lawns, and shrubs, even catnip. Cities and counties set up open-space programs to preserve farms, forests, and ranches, often for recreational use.

Farmers and ranchers have benefited in recent decades from selling or leasing their land for oil wells and windfarms as well as development. Their locally grown, healthy foods are supported by the popular “Colorado Proud” campaign showcased in many grocery stores, school districts, farmers markets, restaurants, and garden centers. Direct sales from producer to consumer have mushroomed in recent decades. Denver’s Food Action Plan includes a goal of 25 percent of all food purchased by public institutions coming from Colorado producers. As twenty pounds of feed is required to produce one pound of beef, vegetarianism is also a goal. The authors note that less than 1 percent of agricultural lands are organic. Growing demand for locally grown natural and organic food points to a greener future. 

While covering a wide range of topics, the authors, most egregiously, provide minimal coverage of the migrants who do most of Colorado’s agricultural work. They also neglect wine growing, which has become a major Western Slope industry. 

Marijuana, a newly legalized major crop, and a major new crop, gets barely a page. Likewise, there is no mention of a new and expanding field, agribusiness, where consumers harvest their own fruit and vegetables, round up cattle, or do other chores. To nitpick: the authors misspell Coloradans by adding a third “o” (p. 217). They focus on the environmental impact of agriculture, less so on climate change with its drought, flooding, and forest fires. But they also point out that farmers and ranchers were the first environmentalists because their livelihood depended on being good stewards of the land. 

The authors conclude that many agricultural changes have required the farmer to become a combination of business executive, animal nutritionist, agronomist, soil scientist, tractor mechanic, and engineer. They make a theme of “agriculturalists pushing against nature’s limits” (p. 76). They argue, with the late governor Richard Lamm, that Coloradans and its agriculturalists must shift from “a culture of growth” to “a culture of limits.”