09 October 2005

Impressions From The Front Range

The Front Range of Colorado is a world away from Denver's Washington Park, despite being only a couple of hour apart by interstate highway, state highway and unpaved county roads.

Dry land farming there is not a full time occupation. Almost everyone has, at least, someone in the family who has some supplemental source of income. In good years, this a secondary source of income. In bad years, this is a primary source of income. Drought, hail, tornados and fluctuating crop prices all wreck havoc on even the most carefully considered plans. Capital investments are intense -- thousands of acres of land, tractors, combines, disc plows, fertilizer tanks, grain storage silos, conveyors, scales, and more add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments. Then, of course, there is the working capital required to buy each year's fertilizers, soil testing, pesticides, and costs of living, while waiting the better part of the year for results. Often, parts of the work must be contracted out to others at harvest time if a reserve of family members is't available. The hours are long, injuries are frequent and severe, and the monetary return is often modest.

Without federal subsidies, profits would be more meager or non-existent for the family dry land farmer. Farmers who irrigate their crops face additional pressures. Municipalities are always eager to buy up water rights and the offers are looking increasingly attractive. Irrigated cantelope farming along the Arkansas River, for example, has virtually vanished as Pueblo and other municipalities bought the farmer's water rights. This, in turn, has forced the municipalities with the water rights to rethink their traditional roles as agricultural support towns, as the little hamlets that dot the Front Range become ghost towns. Further pressure comes as a result of a Colorado loss in a water rights suit between Kansas and Colorado which has required Colorado to send more of its water down stream.

The City Mouse, Country Mouse gap is readily apparent at a personal and cultural level.

The phone book says "God Bless America" on the front cover. Religious faith is intense with bible studies supplementing regular weekly services. When the younger generation leaves the farm, as most do, many leave to evangelize in cities and colleges. Bush's approval ratings may have dropped into the 30s, but you wouldn't know it in Washington County, where pictures of George W. Bush and Laura are proudly displayed and Bush/Cheney bumper stickers are commonplace. Community life revolves around the local high schools. Reader's Digest and Good Housekeeping are still periodical staples.

It isn't that everyone is resistent to all change. As I spent the weekend talking to my relatives on the Front Range, everyone was eager to find a way to generate electricity from wind on parcels of land taken out of production as part of federal conservation programs. Most think that Colorado could use a high speed rail line from Fort Collins to Pueblo to take pressure off I-25, although some doubt that government is capable of managing it efficiently. DSL based high speed internet service is just starting to be possible this year, but there is no shortage of takers. One of my cousins was considering pursuing a patent on a new type of farm machinery. Everyone was open to the idea of finding new markets, perhaps amongst the liberals who shop at the natural foods groceries in the cities, for products like millet and other "ancient grains". Many homes have satellite television. Everyone knows the current state of the U.S. currency exchange rates.

But, other changes come less easily. Meat and potatos have not been supplanted by tofu and rice, even though many of the farmers on the Front Range grow soy beans. No one had ever eaten the millet they grow for decades (it is sold primarily as bird food), even though most were aware that it is eaten by people in much of the world. The nearest cup of expresso is three quarters of an hour away. People are concerned that video games are too violent, and are disturbed at that face that many people they encounter in their daily life do not speak English as a native language. It is an article of faith that we live in a Christian nation. The local aesthetic doesn't even try to be flashy. Trailers, clutter, and a certain amount of deferred maintenance are the norm.

The land is a testament to individualism, even though the community is remarkable for the extent to which members pull together to help each other in hard times. A square mile section bounded by unpaved county roads rarely has more than one homeplace on it. A few hae two, and there are a few tinyh clusters of homes called towns, but the idele is to live alone in a section with privacy further insured byh a protective wall of trees. Many drive ten or fifteen miles to their most distant parcels of land, but few have any desire to establish that kind of rural villages that are the norm amongst European farmers. Following precedents dating back, at least, to the Homestead Acts, farmers live on their land far from any neighbor.

In sum, it is encouraging that there is some common ground, but the differences to give rise to political differences between urban America and rural American do run deep, and they can't simply be papered over with different framing of the issues.

1 comment:

Kyle said...

Was interesting reading, because this sounds not so different from farming in some southern and central Alabama. City mouse-country mouse issues are similar here, except maybe with a more intense dose of racial issues.