Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Place

Yesterday on the road in to Crested Butte I passed an old farmer out digging in his kitchen garden. He held his shovel firmly and stabbed it at the ground with precision, attempting to extricate some plant or weed. He was singly focused on his task whatever it may have been. The prior day I saw a similar fellow doing something equally mysterious, albeit assuredly productive, in his garden on the windy slog into Gunnison. This gentleman looked up from behind his white picket fence and gave me a wave. He wore overalls, a straw hat, the entire works. His old farmstead still held some of the polish and pride of its former years though I couldn’t see any livestock in the field or horses in the corral. I’ve seen a number of such figures along my route across Colorado. From the gathering of ’old-timers’ in Holly to the man I saw digging yesterday, they all appear at a glance to be of a similar generation, remnants if you will, of a prior era.

Another common sight amidst the grandeur and natural beauty of Colorado is the ‘For Sale’ sign. Usually advertising large lots, ranches, farms and other rural properties they generally appear with great regularity along the route I‘ve traveled. Even today descending Kebler Pass the first real ‘sign’ of civilization I saw amongst the vast unspoiled beauty of that wilderness was a Remax sign: “140 Acres for Sale, borders National Forest Land.” Some advertise development opportunities for subdivisions, others like many that I’ve seen riding around the streets of Paonia, offer what I’d imagine are great deals on largely depressed and neglected properties. “Its hard to make a living here,“ a fellow cyclist told me while I was at the car wash today, rinsing the layers of mud from my bike. I imagine that’s why folks can’t afford to stay here.

Juxtaposed together, the images of aging farmers and signposts of rural flight, I’m left wondering what might happen to these places in another 10 to 20 years. When all of the old farmers have tilled their last field, baled their last round bale, or raised their last herd of cattle what will become of their land? With so many other properties already on the market it’s a toss up as to what will happen to these rural landscapes in the future. What is becoming more clear is that fewer people are opting for farming and ranching as a lifestyle. Our society largely disregards the work, we undervalue the end product in our demand for cheap food and it is becoming increasingly more costly to acquire land, work it and keep it. Land values have sky rocketed out in western Colorado even despite the economic downturn. Property adjacent to National Forest or resort land is in high demand, and often current landowners struggle to keep pace with the increasing property tax demand of their valuable asset. As Wendell Berry once noted, land doesn’t make you any money until you sell it…and then what? You may have made enough with the sale of your property to pay off your debts and settle your affairs but your lifestyle is gone.

And with the sale of those properties to a real estate developer, venture capitalist or industrial agricultural enterprise something is taken from the landscape, erased from the living memory of these wide open places. You can see the progression of the lifestyle in this part of the country with the changing style of home found on these properties. The oldest, and often frequently abandoned, boast only a small cabin, log or timber, and broken down fencing. The focus of these old lots was the large bank style barn, network of corrals and pens. Simple and straightforward these structures are often still standing if not fully functioning. Then there are the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s era homes, more solidly constructed yet showing their age and wear, often times more clearly than their older counterparts. There’s a continuity of purpose to these structures, however they represent the travails of the costlier forms of modern agriculture. Expensive facilities, equipment and miscellaneous junk often litter the lots; so much hope and promise banked on new methods and technologies which never delivered. And then there are the new developments, vacation properties, sprawling homes packaged with acreage and a Morton building. Everything you need to plug into the country for a quick escape before you jet back to the city for ‘real life’. I imagine it is hard to build a sense of community when many of your property owners don’t actually live here. They aren’t interested in the place as much as the location.

Wineries, orchards and small farm plots fill the North Fork Gunnison valley trailing down from Paonia to Hotchkiss and Delta. These small communities feature a tight network of new farmers, individuals attempting to rekindle the agricultural spirit of the west using new tools such as CSA’s, organic methods, agritourism and strong local farmer markets. Thanks in large part to a wetter than average summer, the valley is an explosion of color as well as a bounty of fruit and vegetables. Just riding around the town of Paonia one can see orchards full of apples and peaches, small home gardens brimming over with squash, corn, tomatoes, beans and pumpkins. Every neighborhood plot here in this town surrounded by farms seems to have some connection to growing and food production. Perhaps I’m reading too much into an afternoon’s worth of visiting. Perhaps I’m secretly hoping that this community is in fact coming back from the dead, rebuilding its community roots. “Its like stepping back into the 50’s. Its smaller here, but closer,” I was told by an 11 year resident of Paonia. He still keeps a property in Golden, but admitted he can’t stand to go back any more. While this valley of farms, small businesses and local enterprise lies well across the state from my home it gives me hope that this quieter, friendlier, more neighborly form of existence might still make it, and it will do so without the benefits of a ski resort or destination theme resort hotbed. It gives me hope that the bedroom communities and sprawling burbs may not quite get to every corner of the state. That when the old timers are gone, a generation of new timers will be there to take their place; their place of being and not just their location.

You can get updates on my travels across Colorado by bicycle at or use the link to the right.